For a progressive living in a gerrymandered red state, it’s sometimes impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel. But once in a while, we score a victory for Team Blue. Last fall I found myself managing Dwayne Thompson’s campaign for Tennessee House District 96. On November 8, as Democrats across the nation were taking a beating in the presidential race, Dwayne Thompson eked out a victory against Republican Steve McManus. House District 96 encompasses most of Cordova and areas of Germantown and unincorporated east Shelby County. It was the only 2016Democratic gain in the ultra Republican Tennessee legislature. It was a hard fought campaign, and it came down to a mere 365 votes. Many of the politicos around town were shocked at the upset, but it was not as much of a surprise to those familiar with the district.
So how did we make it happen? It boiled down to a few key factors: 1) the changing demographics of the district, with a rising tide of Democratic voters; 2) a hard-working candidate who knew his district well, canvassed extensively, and focused on issues that mattered to voters in the district; 3) access to adequate resources, both human and financial; and finally, it must be admitted, 4) a complacent opponent. None of these factors individually would have been enough to tip the scale, but the combination made the race winnable.
Having lived in Cordova for the past twenty years, Dwayne understood the nature of the district, and had studied the changing voting patterns. HD-96, with a few exceptions on either side of the curve, is solidly middle class. The racial mix of the district is approximately 2/3 white, 1/4 African American, and the remainder Hispanic and Other. Many of the voters fall in the middle of the political spectrum, although there are a couple of precincts that are still heavily conservative. Dwayne had run for the same seat in 2014 and lost, but the fact that he had actually earned 38% of the votes gave him hope, knowing that the presidential race in 2016 would increase voter turnout among voters who tend to vote Democratic.
In order to take advantage of the increased turnout, however, Dwayne knew that he had to work hard to gain name recognition. The candidate himself began canvassing in the spring, during the months leading up to the primary. Canvassing was a daily event for him. He did have a helper or two, but much of his early canvassing was by himself. Once Thompson had won the primary, however, we added teams of canvassers most days, both paid and volunteer. As early voting approached, we had enough canvassers and callers to reach out to every voter that had been identified as a supporter, reminding them of early voting dates, times and locations. The weekend before the election, we made another push to reach out to anyone who had not voted yet. All of this is basic campaign tactics, but many campaigns lack the resources to follow through. Having a candidate who was out there on the front lines every weekend working side by side with the volunteers helped to earn and retain good workers. It was also impressive to voters, even a few Republicans, many of whom had never had a candidate actively seeking their votes and listening to their concerns. Dwayne’s hard work was not limited to canvassing. Once early voting began, he or one of his trusted campaign workers was at the Agricenter every day. The efforts of the team at the Agricenter cannot be understated. They were salespeople – they approached voters with enthusiasm, and actually garnered a good number of votes. Looking at the returns, early voting is where Dwayne won the race.
In terms of resources, fundraising was a problem. Dwayne Thompson had been a fixture of Shelby County Democratic politics for decades, and many of local experts had written off his campaign as just another quixotic effort to break the Republican stranglehold in east Shelby. In spite of this attitude, the campaign did get some meaningful union donations. It was the TNDP, however, who stepped in and filled the gap. They would not have done so, however, if they had not seen an opportunity in the race, and if the candidate himself had not already covered a lot of ground in the district. With the financial resources at the campaign’s disposal, we were able to afford a paid political consultant, paid canvassers, a campaign manager, and a few targeted radio ads, in addition to the usual printed materials, tee shirts, and so on. The TNDP and the House Democratic Caucus helped with independent expenditures in the form of mailers, advertising, and phone banking.
The incumbent was notably weak. Preliminary polling by the TNDP revealed that Representative McManus had very low name recognition in the district, and held only a smalllead, in spite of serving several terms in office. That is what convinced the party to conduct a more in-depth survey, which revealed further opportunities. The fact that Dwayne had already been campaigning hard in the district convinced the party that his campaign was worth the investment. Opportunities like this don’t happen very often, and Dwayne was able to take advantage of it.
Dwayne Thompson ran an old fashioned campaign. He stuck to his district. He had a thorough ground game. He had the resources to focus on turnout and he had a complacent opponent. This made it possible to capitalize on a unique set of circumstances and is now serving his constituents well in the legislature. We need to prepare ourselves to defend our hard-fought gains. Next year, Dwayne will surely have a well funded Republican opponent, and he will need all the volunteers and funding he can get. Right now, we can help by contributing to his campaign. January and the fundraising blackout period during the legislative term are right around the corner, so the time to act is now. Please contribute to Dwayne Thompson’s re-election campaign (www.votethompson96.com) or to Future901 (https://secure.actblue.com/contribute/page/future901) as we work to put more progressives into office.
- Diane Cambron