Despite being home to the Memphis blues, my home state of Tennessee is undeniably red. The governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature are controlled by the GOP, and all but two members of its congressional delegation are Republicans. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the state with over 60 per cent of the vote.
“Tennessee definitely has a strain of, you know, extreme conservatism,” Justin Kanew of College Grove, a small community in central Tennessee, tells me. In 2018, Kanew ran for Congress in the seventh district. He lost to Republican Mark E Green but saw a hunger for a different viewpoint. Along with Holly McCall, he cofounded the Tennessee Holler, a progressive website covering state politics. “Every week there’s something ridiculous that happens in Tennessee,” he adds. “There’s no shortage of insanity to cover.”
That insanity will come to a head today as Tennessee Democrats vote in the party’s presidential primary. Joe Biden has overtaken Bernie Sanders as the favorite to win, yet supporters of other candidates remain passionate and hopeful that their candidate can not only win but unite the party.
“To me, there is only one candidate that meets my albeit rather tough requirements, and that is Senator Bernard Sanders,” Michael Zimmerman, a musician and line cook from Nashville, says. “He has been the only candidate who has fought for the right issues his entire political career.” He believes Sanders can unite the “disillusioned working class” and secure victory in Tennessee and beyond.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Jessica Yokley, the Chairwoman of the Lawrence County Democratic Party, a small county that sits on the border with Alabama. “I think that Bernie is more of a divider than a uniter,” she says. For Yokley, who identifies herself as “a pro-life Democrat,” Biden can bring in people like her who might feel excluded by more ideologically left-leaning candidates: “I believe if the Democrats want to claim to be a ‘big tent,’ we must also be accepting of the idea that not everyone has the same opinions as us.”
Others are less enthusiastic about the former Vice President. Davin Clemons, a Memphis police officer, is a former supporter of Pete Buttigieg but on Sunday was deciding between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “Joe Biden has many black voters hoodwinked and bamboozled about his support and track record of black folks,” he said back then, citing Biden’s support for the 1994 crime bill. As of Tuesday morning, Clemons still hadn’t decided who to vote for, but said he was now torn between Sanders and Biden: “Mayor Pete urged his supporters to rally behind Biden, so I’m giving it a little thought.”
Rachel Thomason of Nashville is supporting Biden, though she has some reservations. “I think Biden is a little too old and I wish he would’ve run four years ago,” she says, “but he has the record, the history, the experience as vice president to do some real good in our country.” Thomason considered voting for Amy Klobuchar but settled on Biden before Klobuchar’s departure from the race because “she is behind in the polls.”
This is the calculation many Tennessee Democrats are making. Since Biden’s landslide victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary race, this election is being increasingly viewed as a choice between him or Sanders. But not everyone is automatically flocking to the frontrunners.
“I don’t know that there’s a second for me,” Lynn Newton, a graphic designer from Chattanooga, told me on Sunday mere hours before the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana suspended his campaign. She volunteered as a congressional district leader for Tennesseans for Pete, a grassroots organization supporting Buttigieg’s candidacy started by Spanish and Sunday school teacher Elizabeth Madeira of Franklin.
“It’s hard for me to imagine spending this amount of energy and time on someone who’s not Pete,” Madeira said. Both voted early for Buttigieg but had different reactions to his endorsement of Biden. Because of Pete’s endorsement, Madeira said “there’s a good chance I will canvass” for Biden. Newton said she would vote for Biden in the general election, but she isn’t sure she will donate or volunteer for him: “The disappointment is still raw.”
Others are disappointed with the candidates in general. “Honestly, I’m not really impressed with anyone right now,” says Monique Gooch of La Vergne, a suburb of Nashville. “If I had to pick one, I would choose Elizabeth Warren.” Gooch cited Warren’s support for raising taxes on the wealthy as well as the minimum wage among her reasons for leaning towards the Massachusetts senator. Gooch, who lost a brother to gun violence last year, also likes Bernie Sanders’ gun policy. “No civilian needs to be armed with an AR-15,” she says, noting that Sanders supports an assault weapons ban.
Regardless of who they’re voting for, nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that healthcare was a top priority for Tennessee. “The thing that you’ll always hear first from Tennessee Democrats is healthcare,” Justin Kanew, a Sanders supporter, told me. Tennessee has the second highest rate of rural hospital closures in the country, making access to healthcare a challenge for many in the state’s rural communities — a problem compounded by state Republicans’ plans to overhaul Medicaid funding. “It’s policy murder is what I call it,” Kanew added.
The cost of healthcare is a key issue for Mary Bennett, an elementary school teacher from Donelson. “When I gave birth two years ago, we paid $8,000 out of pocket,” she tells me. “That’s unacceptable.” Donelson says she has three friends who have declared bankruptcy due to medical debt. She supports Elizabeth Warren and Medicare for All, though she concedes it might be hard to get through Congress: “It doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.”
“As someone who lives with epilepsy, my medication is expensive, so I need someone who is going to fight to make my doctor visits less expensive and my meds cheaper,” Monique Gooch told me. “Insurance doesn’t cover everything.”
Even when it does cover healthcare costs, coverage can be precarious. Michael Zimmerman purchased a healthcare policy through the Affordable Care Act exchange but worries he won’t be able to afford it forever. “If I make anything past a certain income bracket, I no longer qualify for the tax credit I receive and therefore could not afford the insurance I have,” he says.
The need for affordable healthcare is something Jessica Yokley also champions: “The security that comes with access to good medical care and a decent wage would be a game changer in rural Tennessee.”
While Tennessee Democrats appear united on the need for a fairer healthcare policy, that seems to be where they part ways. “It does seem many people are very torn on their primary selection,” Yokely says. Justin Kenew agrees: “My general sense is nobody feels like there’s a perfect candidate in the race. We’re pretty divided. I’m interested to see what happens on Tuesday. No one really knows.”
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