Tennessee Democrats face a “nuclear winter for 10 to 15 years” if they allow Republicans to control the Legislature and handle the redrawing of district lines as the result of the 2010 elections, Democratic state party chairman Chip Forrester said Tuesday night.
Forrester spoke to a group of Democratic college students at Trevecca Nazarene University at an event that drew some local Democratic candidates and one independent. Forrester was a pinch-hit speaker for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kim McMillan, who had to cancel because of an illness in her family. About 30 people attended.
“If we don’t take back the state House this year and advance the line on the Senate and hopefully elect a Democratic governor, the Republicans will take a pen in 2011 and they will draw districts for our members of Congress, and our state Senate, and our state House, that will put us in the minority for at least 10-15 years,” Forrester told the group. “We will be in a nuclear winter for 10-15 years.”
Redistricting is a huge factor in the 2010 campaigns. The General Assembly is currently under a Republican majority in both the House and Senate, a feat achieved by the historic Republican gain in the House in 2008, taking the majority in that chamber at the time by the slimmest of margins.
Republicans have a 19-14 advantage over Democrats in the Senate and hold 50 seats in the House to the Democrats’ 48. Speaker of the House Kent Williams is also a Republican but was formally disowned by the Tennessee Republican Party after his deal with Democrats to become speaker and is listed as a Carter County Republican.
As long as Republicans hold the advantage in the makeup of the legislature, they will be the party with the power to draw the lines in redistricting. The redistricting process happens every 10 years and is almost always controversial, frequently resulting in sprawling districts that reflect attempts to identify voters by party more than by drawing lines based on conventional methods like streams or county borders. The process is predictably messy but is largely an understood political reality by both parties. Democrats know the score if they don’t have the majority in the legislature.
Forrester laid out the stakes to his audience in blunt and honest terms. He said unless the Democrats at least create a stalemate in the 2010 elections, Republicans could conceivably draw district lines that would diminish the number of Democratic state senators from 14 to seven, and that the number of Democratic House members could drop from 48 to 40.
“So if you like guns in bars, guns in parks, guns in schools, guns in the office place, blowing up mountaintops, rolling back consumer protections and no equal pay for women, then don’t get involved,” Forrester said. “That’s why it is important.”
He said it was possible that redistricting would take out 4th District U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, rework the 6th District seat currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon and the 8th District of Rep. John Tanner, who is also retiring. Forrester said current state Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who is running to replace Tanner, could become a one-term congressman if he wins this year.
“The other scary piece of the puzzle is that Congressman Jim Cooper could be redistricted,” Forrester said. “It doesn’t take a lot of moving of the precincts, particularly in the collar communities around Nashville, to change the 5th congressional district.”
Forrester said conceivably the state could be left with only one Democratic member of the House, that being in the 9th District in Memphis.
Forrester said, “It’s hard to make a sexy speech about redistricting. It’s hard to make that connection to average voters, to understand how important this election cycle is in 2010.”
The party chairman put his speech in the context of enlarging the number of Democratic voters by reminding the group about Obama’s presidential victory in 2008.
“He knew he had to do something incredible to get noticed,” Forrester said. “How does an African-American running in Iowa show well? What did Barack Obama have to do? He had to enlarge the electorate in Iowa. And the only way he could enlarge the electorate in Iowa was with young people. He had to carry his message of change to young people in Iowa.
“This is a room of young people. We’ve got to enlarge our electorate in Tennessee.”
Tyler Carpenter, a Trevecca senior from Franklin, Ohio, who is president of the school’s College Democrats, said the idea for the meeting was to use the appeal Obama demonstrated in the 2008 presidential election and translate that to the importance of politics at the state level.
“I think he has done a good job so far. I think the most important thing to look at is that he alone can’t get the job done,” Carpenter said of Obama. “He’s got to have the support of the House and Senate. Right now, there’s a constant struggle between what he wants to do and what they’re willing to do.”