Both Parties Are Watching One Middle Tennessee Statehouse Race For Omens | Nashville Public Radio

Both Parties Are Watching One Middle Tennessee Statehouse Race For Omens

Mar 12, 2018

It's a desperate-sounding plea, delivered to residents of five Middle Tennessee counties over social media. The frantic man on screen is Shane Reeves, a Murfreesboro pharmacist running as a Republican in a special election, and though you might not know from the tone, Reeves is the favorite.

"I need your help," he says. "I need your support, I need your advice, and I need you to get out for me during this early voting session."

In dozens of legislative districts around the country, Democrats have been scoring upsets. Late last year, they came about 300 votes shorts of flipping a longtime Republican stronghold just east of Nashville. That's put the GOP on notice.

Now many are watching another Middle Tennessee race.

On Tuesday, residents of Tennessee's 14th Senate District will elect a new state senator. The district stretches from the northwest corner of Rutherford County all the way through Shelbyville, Fayetteville and Lewisburg. It should be a cakewalk for a well-known, pro-business Republican like Reeves.

But he says it'd be foolish to treat this election as anything other than close.

"If any Republicans out there right now in this climate are not taking serious that the Democratic Party is mobilized and mad," Reeves says, "then they're making a big mistake."

Democrats do seem to be motivated. After a year of upsets and near-upsets, they've flipped more than three dozen Republican-held seats in statehouses around the country.

This district might be beyond their reach. The man who used to hold the seat — Shelbyville Republican Jim Tracy — won in 2016 with nearly three quarters of the vote.

Still, Reeves is pulling out the stops. Campaign records show he's spent well over $100,000 on advertising. He estimates he put another $50,000 into direct mail.

He's also received the full-throated assistance of the Tennessee Republican Party, which hopes to stem the Democratic wave.

"Everybody I know from our side of the campaign world and Mr. Reeves, we are all very much expecting it to be a close race," says Scott Golden, the state GOP's chairman. "We need to make sure that voters know our message and know our agenda and are making sure they're coming out and voting."

Turnout crucial

Democrats have also been mobilizing volunteers, from Tennessee and beyond the state, to send postcards and make phone calls to help get out the vote.

Democratic candidate Gayle Jordan waves to passing drivers as a supporter chats with her campaign manager outside the polls in Lewisburg.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Their candidate is a professional mediator and mother of four named Gayle Jordan, the person Tracy beat so handily less than two years ago. On the first day of early voting, she was at the polls with her campaign manager, Susan Steen, in Lewisburg.

Within minutes, a man in a pickup truck stops. He hops out and introduces himself as Jim Whittle.

He's already cast his ballot, but Whittle asks Jordan for a yard sign. He also wants to show her the business card he carries in his wallet. He received it from her campaign, and he's been trying to get it into the hands of someone who's undecided.

"Everywhere I go, I try to talk to them. It's a tough fight," he says. "Most are Republicans around here, you know."

But not so long ago, contests in places like the 14th District weren't such locks for the Republicans. Rural and suburban Democrats were potent factors in Tennessee well into the 2000s, helping them win the governor's office and hold onto majorities in the state legislature.

Then came the Tea Party wave of 2010, which left Republicans in total control of state government.

Jordan hopes the voters are ready for another change.

"I think there are a number — including the folks in District 14 — of good, good people that are members of the Republican Party who believe in the things that the Republican Party used to stand for," she says. "And I think they're frustrated."

Jordan believes a platform focused on issues like expanded health care, better schools and improved broadband in rural areas can win back voters who've drifted from the Democratic Party.

"It's critical, I think, for us to have our Democratic voices out there saying, 'There are other ways to do this.'"

Over the past few weeks, the race has become increasingly pointed. Republicans attack Jordan for being an atheist, which she doesn't hide. She even works with a nonprofit, Recovering from Religion, that offers support to people who've left organized faith.

Democrats counter that their opponent — despite billing himself as politically independent — has received help from close allies of President Trump, including Congressmen Marsha Blackburn and Scott DesJarlais.

Both sides say the key to winning this race will be turnout. But even if she loses, Jordan believes Democrats are showing signs of progress. Local Democratic meetings are drawing more people. Leaders are organizing mixers. There are book clubs.

All of which contributes to the Democratic Party's rebuilding, says Jordan.

"Yes, we'd love their help for the campaign. Yes, we'd love their support," she says. "But so much more than that, it's to build a community."

For the Republican, Reeves, the stakes are perhaps higher. He wants to show that Republican control in Tennessee is as firm as ever.

"I feel like we need to win this and we need to win this as decisively as possible," he says. "Yeah, I feel a burden. It's more than just my election. It's about wanting to do good for the Republican parties in the counties and the state.

Political observers all over the country will be reading the tea leaves when the results from the 14th District come in tomorrow. Reeves hopes they'll augur well for Republicans.