United Campus Workers Rally - Midterm analysis lead

KNOXVILLE, TN - Jason Martin, democratic candidate for Tennessee Governor, speaks at the United Campus Workers rally at the Torchbearer on UTK's campus on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2022. 

While it was a stunning midterms season throughout the country, it was more of the same here in Tennessee.

Tennesseans last Tuesday came out to vote for governor, all nine U.S. House members, 17 state senators, all 99 state House members and four constitutional amendments.

Despite refusing to expand Medicaid, ignoring Tennessee’s rural hospital crisis, working against the state’s labor movement and attacking the right to choose, Bill Lee cruised to re-election by over 30-points on election night.

His challenger, Dr. Jason Martin, was a critical care physician who witnessed the depths of Lee’s flawed COVID-19 response that would cost many preventable deaths. Martin had especially decried the anti-abortion bill signed by Lee that shifted burden of proof to the doctor when defending against performing an abortion. Now, many doctors across the state are fearfully hesitant or ask for legal guidance before performing crucial operations.

Martin also supported several measures that are popular with Tennesseans, such as legalizing marijuana, improving health care and paying teachers a fair salary. He requested Lee to debate him several times.

Lee on the other hand largely ignored discussing key policies and refused to debate Martin. This record of cowardice has infected his political duties as well, such as when he let a bill making homelessness a felony become law without his signature. Lee has never vetoed a bill he has disagreed with. Despite this, Lee’s crafted TV image of being a conservative family man was enough to win over his heavily red voters.

The U.S. House races in Tennessee were marked with the ugly gerrymandering by the Tennessee state legislature. Earlier this year, Nashville was carved up from being in one congressional district to three, all including heavily Republican counties. The GOP, the party that claims to be for small government and freedom, had tyrannically stripped away Nashville’s right to choose who represents them.

Now, residents of Nashville are given a Republican representative. The fifth district, long a Democratic stronghold and one of only two in the state, was flipped to Republican Andy Ogles. Urban voters and neighborhoods of color in Nashville were discriminated against by the state legislature, plain and simple.

Ogles also closely followed Lee’s cowardly example. Ogles refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Heidi Campbell, and chose to be interviewed by largely conservative outlets. Ogles is also an election denier, attacked same-sex marriage and has spoke against exceptions for rape and incest in Tennessee’s anti-abortion law.

The GOP’s gerrymandering also sowed confusion into Nashville’s voting system, with the AP reporting over 430 voters were given the wrong ballot prior to election day. This kind of confusion only does one thing: suppress the vote. It seems that the GOP has harkened back to a time of disenfranchising certain types of voters.

Of the eight other U.S. House seats, seven were won by their incumbent Republicans. All seven of these incumbents had voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results without any evidence. That is not being a public servant, that is being an insurrectionist. One of which, Tim Burchett, beat Democratic challenger and UT professor Mark Harmon.

Democrat Steve Cohen kept his ninth district seat in Memphis, which was spared any disastrous redistricting.

Of the 17 state senate seats, only 10 were contested, and of the 99 state house races, only 45 were contested. Tennessee’s very polarized rural-urban divide continues to show the complete lack of competitiveness for opposing parties outside of their respective geographic strongholds.

The state legislature will maintain a comfortable Republican majority, with the GOP holding 27 of 33 senate seats and currently 75 of 99 state house seats. The General Assembly consistently makes national (and sometimes international) headlines for egregious bills: including book banning, restricting topics college professors can teach and allowing permitless carry for handguns. The aforementioned anti-abortion bill is particularly appalling in that it has no exceptions for rape or incest.

In Knox County, despite the state legislature gerrymandering the only two Democratic state house seats into one, Gloria Johnson and Sam McKenzie were both able to win their respective elections. McKenzie kept his seat in the redistricted 15th, and Johnson won the 90th after previously being in the 13th. Democrat Greg Kaplan, also a UT professor, lost to Republican Elaine Davis in the 18th.

All four of the proposed constitutional amendments for the state constitution passed. Amendment 1, which was opposed by labor organizations leading up to election day, passed with nearly 70% approval. Amendment 1 enshrined “Right to Work” in our state constitution, banning workplaces from requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

This was a preemptive move by the state GOP to quash the growing labor movement in Tennessee. The amendment was championed by billionaire governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee as being “beneficial” to the working class. Never let billionaires tell you what’s best for your labor rights. The intentionally misleading “Right to Work” campaign appears to have worked.

Amendment 2, which creates a gubernatorial line of succession and defined the roles of in such a case, passed with nearly 75% approval. This amendment was by far the longest and most confusing to the average voter. It does clear up confusion in case of the governor’s incapacitation, which had been lacking in the state constitution.

Amendment 3, which removes slavery as a criminal punishment, passed with the highest approval of nearly 80%. Slavery as a punishment is what fueled Tennessee’s heinous convict-lease system, and its removal acknowledges its racist, painful history. But the fact that nearly 20% of Tennesseans voted to keep it is disheartening. Though some of that 20% may have been from confusion, there are still people who believe that breaking rocks with the chain gain is still an acceptable sentence for convicts.

Amendment 4, which removes language banning clergy from serving in the General Assembly, passed with the lowest approval at 63%. This ban had not been enforced in decades, and its removal was mainly symbolic. Most of the opposition seems to come from the support of the separation of church and state, though this would hardly apply. The legislative session only lasts for a few months, and people have a right to be involved in religious positions outside of the General Assembly.

While the national midterms saw a surprising, sharp rebuke to Trumpism and losing the constitutional right to abortion, Tennessee voters decided to approve the decaying status quo. Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted to keep anti-democracy candidates, election deniers and those who have shown hatred for the LGBTQ+ community in office.

With many parts of the country showing a willingness to progress on election night, Tennessee showed its reactionary attitude to hunker down. We shouldn’t be focused on persecuting others for culture wars and keeping those who abuse democracy for Trump, we should be focused on making Tennessee work for all its citizens. Everyone deserves an equal chance in life.

We should live up to our name and volunteer for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Be better, Tennessee.

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