Democrats Hope This Middle Tennessee Race Gives Them Something They've Lacked — Momentum | Nashville Public Radio

Democrats Hope This Middle Tennessee Race Gives Them Something They've Lacked — Momentum

Sep 26, 2016

On a muggy, late summer night, Erin Coleman is greeting supporters at a newly opened Nashville bar.

This is a meet-and-greet for young professionals, one of many such events Coleman has thrown as she tries to build awareness for her run for the state Senate.

As the guests step onto the open deck past a picnic table laden with pizza slices and chicken bites, she introduces herself. They chat about the presidential polls. News that a political veteran is planning to donate to her campaign. Her son who's just started kindergarten.

Democrats have high hopes for Coleman. She's a young mother and a business owner, a lawyer and an Army veteran — the sort of person who might appeal to voters in a Nashville district that's generally suburban and right-of-center.

"We really feel like we're headed in the right direction," she tells one young man, "and people are starting to listen and recognize that there's an election happening."

"I also feel like a lot of Republicans are going to stay home," he says.

"From your lips to God's ears," Coleman replies.

He means that Republicans are going to stay home because of Donald Trump.

At least that's what Coleman is praying for. Democrats believe the Republican presidential nominee gives them a golden chance to win over moderate voters. Or, at the very least, depress Republican turnout.

Either could tilt the balance in the Tennessee Senate's 20th District, says Anthony Davis, a Metro Councilman and the host for this night's event.

"Erin has just such a good chance to win," he says. "That's a seat we can pick off."

The district arcs around the edges of Davidson County, taking in communities like Joelton, Bellevue, Belle Meade and Crieve Hall.

The seat is about as close to even as there is in the Tennessee Senate. When it was last up for grabs in 2012, the Republican won with 54 percent of the vote, a decisive win but not quite a landslide.

Right now, there are only five Democrats in the state Senate — few enough, according to a frequent joke, that they could carpool to the state Capitol in a mid-sized sedan. Davis says even just one or two more Democrats would be significant progress.

"This is a good race to invest in, for sure," Davis says. "If we want to start chipping away at some seats and getting some power back — or just having someone argue for our issues — we've got to pick off a couple seats."

The Republican who holds the seat now is an anesthesiologist named Steve Dickerson. Like Coleman, he's also relatively young and a parent.

State Sen. Steve Dickerson addresses opponents of a pipeline compressor in Joelton. The Nashville Republican has worked with the city's Democratic lawmakers to try to block the project.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Dickerson's also an amateur musician. Ads for his campaign often feature him riffing on his guitar.

Dickerson won the seat four years ago, when Republicans in the state legislature rearranged district lines to make it possible for a GOP candidate to win in Davidson County. Since then, he's stood out as one of the most moderate members of the Senate.

"As far as public policy solutions go, I try to pick issues, try to pick topics, try to make votes and take stands that span the parties," he says. "They're, a lot of times, seen as nonpartisan or bipartisan."

Dickerson has proposed legalizing medical marijuana and letting women buy birth control pills without a doctor's* prescription. He was the only Republican to join with Democrats in trying to defeat a law that protects Confederate monuments. And he opposed efforts to stop Syrian refugee resettlement.

That vote against suing the federal government over refugees put him at odds with other Republicans in the legislature, and it drew attacks in the primary. It also put him at odds with Donald Trump, who has called for halting immigration from countries with large Muslim populations.

"I'm running my race based on local issues, family, opportunity and prosperity," he says of Trump. "And I think the voters of Davidson County will realize that there's a wide variety of Republicans, and that he and I have limited areas of overlap."

Still, tying Dickerson to the man at the top of the GOP ballot is a big part of Democrats' strategy. They've urged Dickerson to repudiate Trump — something the senator hasn't quite done.

They've also accused Tennessee Republicans of being hostile to Nashville. They argue the city's voters would be better off with a Democrat who can swing freely at legislation deemed harmful to the city.

But Coleman is starting at a considerable disadvantage. Not only has the district been drawn to lean Republican; she's outgunned financially. At last count, Dickerson had seven times more money in the bank than Coleman.

"I think that it's just a matter of how you effectively use the funds that you have," she says. "And we're known for using our funds in a very smart way" like targeted social media advertising and sophisticated voter identification methods.

One big opportunity, says Tennessee Democratic Party chair Mary Mancini, is Nashville's newcomers. She figures many haven't yet decided whether they fit better with the state's Democrats or its Republicans.

Gradually, Democrats hope to chip away at the supermajority Republicans have built at the state Capitol.

"We're in this for the long haul," says Mancini. "We know the state took a shift to the right, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be red forever, because it wasn't red in the past."

Adding another Democratic state senators won't flip the chamber. But with the party in such a deep hole, they believe it would be a good start.

* Clarification: The legislation would not require women to visit a doctor and obtain a prescription. To comply with federal law, women would obtain a prescription from a pharmacist.