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Facing uphill battle, Dems lay foundation in GOP stronghold

November 2, 2018
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Patricia Linder speaks with a reporter about the U.S. House of Representatives race in District 7 in middle Tennessee on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Franklin, Tenn. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz).

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — Patricia Linder is the kind of undecided voter Democrats are looking for.

The Tennessee retiree lives just outside Nashville in Williamson County, the type of suburban territory where Democrats have made gains in other states since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. As Democrats around the country push hard to take over the majority of the seats in a Republican-held Congress, they also believe they can lay the groundwork here to have a fighting chance in future races — including 2020, when Trump is expected to seek re-election.

While many of Linder’s neighbors are entrenched Republicans, she’s receptive when campaign volunteers come to make a pitch for Democratic congressional candidate Justin Kanew, who’s running for an open seat against Republican Mark Green, a state senator and former Army doctor.

Michele Bewley, a volunteer for the progressive voting advocacy group Indivisible, tells Linder, 68, that Kanew is approachable and will look out for regular folks.

“Justin sounds like he’s in good shape,” said Linder, a registered Democrat who has voted Republican before and is impressed with Green’s military service. “I want somebody that I can talk to. It will be a tough decision.”

Williamson County boasts a good public school system and a country-club feel from its subdivisions with large homes and manicured lawns, upscale stores, clean streets and low crime. Republicans point to the high quality of life here, saying the local economy has flourished on their watch.

Democrats know they face an uphill battle for a Nov. 6 victory in the 7th District, one of three races for open House seats currently held by Republicans, but they hope misgivings about Trump run deeper than it may appear.

Kanew, a film producer and former “Amazing Race” contestant, and Green are vying for seat vacated when Republican Marsha Blackburn decided to run for U.S. Senate after 16 years in the House.

Two other House seats in solidly Republican districts also are open in Tennessee — one in Knoxville, the other dominated by rural voters in north Tennessee. The GOP predicts a sweep, but Democrats think their efforts now will pay future dividends.

Williamson County Democrats have been sidelined for years, and considered non-entities in future elections, said Kreis White, a lawyer who decided to help the dormant party.

“I said, ‘I’ll find the phone booth where the Williamson County Democrats meet, see what they’re up to,’” he said.

He found them, and ran for county commission in August — the first time in 20 years that Democrats presented a large field of candidates for Williamson County office. None won, but they showed energy and created a jumping off point, Democrats say.

“It’s not just about November. It’s about 2020. It’s about 2024. It’s about building a deeper bench,” Bewley said

Williamson is one of 19 counties in District 7, which also includes Clarksville and a wide swath of rural Tennessee. With their socially conservative towns, where residents are worried about access to good jobs and health care, the poorer rural counties reflect a sharp contrast to tony Williamson County.

Some of the Democrats’ hope lies in the county’s population growth and a pool of inactive, potential voters. That includes young parents who have been busy raising children and finding their place in the community.

“It takes a while for people to feel like they do have roots, like they have a place and they have a voice in that,” Bewley said.

The District 7 candidates offer those voters a clear contrast.

Kanew supports Medicaid expansion and universal health care coverage. Green is a former Army surgeon and cancer survivor who helped the state Legislature block Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s Medicaid expansion plan. Green says the Affordable Care Act is “terrible.”

Green is endorsed by prominent conservatives Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. He withdrew from consideration for U.S. Army secretary last year after facing criticism over negative remarks about Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Green called the attacks “false and misleading” and accused Democrats and the media of orchestrating a “hit job” on his nomination.

Kanew hasn’t accepted political action committee campaign donations, which shows he won’t be beholden to Trump or anyone else, he said.

“The real dividing line in this country is not between Democrat voters and Republican voters,” Kanew said. “It’s between special interests and the people, the special interests who control our politicians.”

Green notes that Kanew moved to Tennessee a couple of years ago, and has never held public office. He calls Kanew a socialist for his views on health care and other issues.

“He’s Bernie Sanders-light,” Green said.

White, the 61-year-old lawyer-turned-candidate, is hoping energized younger Democrats will carry the ball forward.

“What should the party do? Should it be concerned about electing Democrats, or should we be like a good civic club, like the Rotary Club?” White said.

The answer, White says, is the former.

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