Usually when we talk about a Senate candidate that has over $1.2 million on hand at their primary date, we’re generally talking about a blowout winner. This is especially true when that candidate is DSCC-endorsed. But in Tennessee on August 7th, James Mackler, a candidate who had both of these qualities, came in third.
How does this happen to a candidate with such strong fundraising? Mackler clearly had to make some errors, so let’s dive into how an originally hyped talent fell to third in his own primary.
Who is James Mackler?
James Mackler is a veteran and member of the Tennessee National Guard. Mackler is currently an attorney who has worked in Democratic politics previously. His moderate profile and local boy style made him look like a very solid candidate. He was actually the favorite in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary before Phil Bredesen entered the race. With another open seat this year due to the retirement of incumbent Lamar Alexander, Mackler hopped into the race.
Mackler was then immediately greeted with hype. Daily Kos Elections had said Mackler would be the top Democratic recruit for this red seat. The DSCC immediately came out and endorsed him. Multiple Democratic-aligned groups followed suit in Planned Parenthood and End Citizens United. He even got an endorsement from Tim Kaine. All this added up to the strongest non-Phil Bredesen fundraising haul we had seen in Tennessee for a Democrat in a long while.
Issue 1: Campaigning
The first issue that seemed to come from Mackler’s defeat was an inability for his campaign to actually campaign. And while I am sure it was hard to do during the pandemic, every campaign had to deal with it. Mackler’s issues seemed to go beyond the pandemic though.
Mackler apparently failed to campaign in the largely Democratic areas of Memphis and Nashville. That showed on primary night, as he was third in both counties the cities are in after all the votes were counted. He did slightly better in Chattanooga and Knoxville, finishing second in Hamilton County (Chattanooga) while narrowly winning Knox County. Those narrow wins and large defeats show though that Mackler did not seem to connect to the Democratic base in those cities.
The issues don’t just occur in the cities though. Mackler also struggled in many rural counties as well, losing out mostly to unknown candidate (and now, the nominee) Marquita Bradshaw or losing out to perennial candidate Gary Davis. His campaign strategy ended up not working out, as it seems voters would have liked to heard more than “I’m endorsed by the DSCC.”
Issue 2: The Ballot Design
The issues that Mackler had though on election night might have been out of his control.
In races like this, there are not many who are informed of the candidates. Especially ones that would be considered uncompetitive like this race here. So what you have is an uninformed voter population who might be privy to just picking the first candidate they see on the ballot. In other words, this explains why the progressive activist in Bradshaw did so well in the rural counties. The Democrats there didn’t end up caring about who was the nominee and just picked the first name that showed up on the ballot. Thanks to alphabetical order, that name happened to be Bradshaw‘s.
This doesn’t mean this isn’t still a failure for Mackler though. He clearly did not campaign in a way that made primary voters care about the race. That failure is on him and his campaign. It is hard though for any campaign to make voters care when they are in a state like Tennessee. After seeing your best candidate since in about a decade and a half lose by double digits, it’s hard to make people are about your race. We’ve seen this happen for the GOP in states like Oregon and California and in states like Arkansas for the Democrats. When your already limited members of your party don’t think you can win, it’s hard to make them care. In the end, they’ll pick the first candidate they see on the ballot. That is sometimes out of a campaign‘s control.
Issue 3: The winds of change in the Democratic Party
Finally, it might just be true that the remnants of the Tennessee Democratic Party have just passed Mackler by. We’ve seen this cycle, and this is especially true after the murder of George Floyd, that women and people of color have had success in handily winning primaries. Bradshaw fits both descriptors and its possible the actual Democrat voters in Tennessee didn’t find Mackler interesting.
Mackler’s campaign was based more on the old school Democrat in Tennessee, someone who is rural, white and older. These types of voters don’t exist as much though in any state anymore. They have either joined the GOP or have died. The base wasn’t there for Mackler and his messaging and last Thursday proved that. The party in states like Tennessee has moved just like the party as a whole. And while that means it will be harder for Democrats to win anytime soon in Tennessee, it means any candidate who could be strong also has to change their messaging to fit the base.
Hype doesn’t always pan out
The takeaway is that early hype just doesn’t pan out. The early hype for James Mackler didn’t and even with $1.2 million in the bank he failed to even get second place. While some of the fault is his own and of a poor campaign, other variables also got in his way. The remaining primary voters clearly were not excited for his candidacy and that in itself is a sign of the change within the parties.
Tennessee’s senate seat would have been safe this cycle, even if Mackler had won, but it is still bad for the state Democratic Party that he lost. If you cannot even put up a solid candidate for a statewide race, it’s going to be a long hard road to rebuilding. Tennessee’s Democrats are in for a rough decade and they should buckle up.