Democratic female candidates face challenges, opportunities

tennessean-news-graphicDave Boucher. The Tennessean. April 5, 2016. 

Almost all of the newly announced Democratic candidates for the Tennessee General Assembly had introduced themselves by the time Pam Weston came to the microphone.

But Weston, who’s advocated for the passage of controversial health care initiative Insure Tennessee, received one of the more raucous responses from advocates and supporters gathered Tuesday morning in Nashville when she explained why she wanted to run.

“When I told my state rep that I had been closely watching the activities of the legislature, he suggested that I should have stuck to cleaning house. So that’s what I’ve decided to do,” said Weston, who is challenging Rep. Jimmy Matlock. A GOP spokesman later said Weston’s comments were “not truthful.”

Weston is one of 23 women who plan to run as Democrats for seats in the state House or Senate this fall. It’s the latest strategy unveiled by Democratic activists, and it could have some legs. But there are significant logistical and political hurdles awaiting many of the candidates. Here are three takeaways.

1. Political landscape

They’re Democrats in a state that’s become dependably Republican over the past two decades. All but two of these candidates are running in counties won by Donald Trump in the March 1 GOP presidential primary. Many of these candidates haven’t run for office before, so they could argue they’re also political outsiders and might be able to tap into an overall frustration with politicians. But that’s banking on voters who’ve traditionally — at least recently — overwhelmingly favored the GOP in almost all of these districts.

Tamara King, a teacher who’s running for the seat held by Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, in a district that spans southern Middle Tennessee, said she thinks that political landscape will be one of her biggest challenges. She’s confident she can win voters over with her message; the tough part will be to stop those voters from summarily dismissing her message because she’s a Democrat.

National politics are expected to play a role as well though, in a way that could help Democrats. Organizers of the effort — including longtime Tennessee Democratic operative Krissa Barclay and Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville — believe a combination of Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic ticket and Trump atop the Republican ticket only helps strong Democratic women.

“Too many representatives in the legislature are worried about their ideological flank and have not paid enough attention to average voters,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll.

“That dynamic is because the Democrats have not offered enough competitive candidates. Anything that changes that pattern will be good for the state and good for democratic accountability.”

2. Legislative landscape

If what Weston says Matlock told her is any indication, the legislative landscape may certainly help these candidates. A Tennessean investigation into Rep. Jeremy Durham’s inappropriate text messages and a legislative sexual harassment policy that experts consider weak brought attention to real issues at the statehouse. (Durham’s challenger, Democratic political strategist Holly McCall, will hammer Durham, R-Franklin, on the issue if he wins the GOP primary).

Those comments or policies aren’t just coming from Republican men: Expect Sydney Rogers to argue Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, bungled the legislative investigation into sexual harassment, and look for Trisha Farmer to hammer Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, for Lynn’s role in killing equal pay legislation in two consecutive years.

Most candidates mentioned bringing health care to the working poor in Tennessee, the goal of Insure Tennessee. But it’s clear the candidates also will paint their opponents as extreme and out of touch: Many also mentioned bills to make a sniper rifle the state rifle, the Bible the official book of Tennessee and allow ownership of skunks as pets.

“Our definition of moderate has changed drastically over the past four years,” said Erin Coleman, a Nashville veteran and attorney who’ll challenge Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville.

“Now, we consider a moderate someone who doesn’t scream out nasty words.”

3. Money

Republicans hold a sizable fundraising lead over Democrats, both looking at party finances and the finances of individual candidates. Durham has more than $200,000 on hand, without any additional fundraising. While he may have to spend some money to advance through the primary, there’s a good chance he could have as much or more money than McCall.

Some of these candidates have political experience: Gloria Johnson represented Knox County in the state legislature before losing in 2014; Laura Bohling was a Republican Circuit Court clerk in Rutherford County; and Deborah Reed, a retired college administrator running in Tipton County against Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, is a member of the Democratic State Executive Committee. But most have never run for public office. Heather Hensley, a registered nurse running in the Eastern Tennessee district represented by Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville, is excited to run but acknowledged the challenge.

“I think this is a one foot in front of the other, one day at a time type of process,” Hensley said.

Bonnie Dow is head of Women for Tennessee’s Future, a liberal organization dedicated to electing Democratic women. She helped recruit candidates for this year’s slate, but she said her organization also is committed to helping the candidates it endorses raise money. Even in the 24 hours after word broke about the initiative, Dow said WTF had received several large contributions. She said she had to add up the amounts before releasing a total number.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini was coy when asked about challenges in raising funds for the candidates. She said she expects the party to do well, but didn’t want to get into strategy publicly.

Republicans lawmakers have $9.6 million combined in their personal campaign committees, while Democrats have just $849,000. Those GOP members who don’t face opponents can share some of those funds with their peers as needed. Plus, outgoing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and Harwell have millions in their political action committees, with the capacity to raise more.

Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.