POLITICS
04/19/2017 10:49 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

Iraq War Vet Is First Democrat To Jump Into Tennessee Senate Race

State activists hope the surge in Democratic engagement gives them a boost as they look to replace Bob Corker in 2018.
Democrat James Mackler announced Monday that he will run for Senate in 2018, challenging Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), pictured
Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Democrat James Mackler announced Monday that he will run for Senate in 2018, challenging Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), pictured here. 

James Mackler, an Iraq War veteran and lawyer in Nashville, announced Sunday that he is running for Senate, becoming the first Democrat to try to take the seat of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in 2018. 

“As a soldier, I know the strength of teamwork, cooperation and the benefits of diversity to accomplish a mission,” Mackler told The Huffington Post. “I know that true leadership really comes from a sense of duty, and without some change in this country, I really worry about the future of my family and those of every Tennessean. My wife and I want to raise our daughters in a nation that celebrates the best of America, not in a country that’s as divided as we are now.”

Tennessee handily went to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and just two of its 11 members of Congress are Democrats. If Mackler gets through the primary, he’ll no doubt face an uphill battle to win a Senate seat. 

Still, state and local Democrats said Tuesday that they’re excited about him, with some saying he may be the strongest Democratic statewide candidate they’ve had since Harold Ford Jr., who served in the House before losing to Corker in a close 2006 Senate race. 

“I think we’re getting a good candidate that can excite people here,” said Gary Bynum, chair of the Democratic Party in Davidson County, which encompasses Nashville. 

“You have to have the right candidates at the right time, and that’s what James is,” added Holly McCall, chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party in suburban Nashville.  

Washington is a mess, our country is divided, our leaders refuse together to solve problems, and I feel called to service. James Mackler

Tennessee has been seeing the same surge in local Democratic activism that’s popping up around the country. Davidson County used to see about 10 people, other than the executive committee, at its regular meetings. But nearly 200 people showed up in January, and 180 people filled out forms to start volunteering. Since then, Bynum said, committee meetings have been getting about 100 people on average.

McCall said she’s seeing the same thing at her meetings. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “I would say our membership has at least tripled.”

McCall is also the recruitment chair for Emerge Tennessee, which trains women to run for office. The group, she said, has had no trouble recruiting women to run since Trump was elected. 

Mackler said no particular event had inspired his decision to run, and instead repeatedly pointed to political divisions in Washington as a motivating factor.

“The fact is, Washington is a mess, our country is divided, our leaders refuse together to solve problems, and I feel called to service,” he said.

Mackler also refused to point to specific areas where Corker has fallen short, and he avoided any of the populist or anti-Trump rhetoric that has been firing up the base since the election. 

“The timing is right for a candidate who understands that our representatives in D.C. are ineffective and is willing to work to change that,” Mackler said. “It’s not about being a Democrat.” 

Corker has not yet said whether he will run for re-election. “I’ve been busy carrying out my activities here,” he said Monday. “I’ve been focused on that ― I’m going to continue to be focused on that. As far as speculation about what I’m going to do or not do, I’d like to talk about that at the appropriate time.”

Candice Dawkins, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Republican Party, said Tuesday that the party was confident that voters would continue to support Republican candidates in 2018. As a cautionary tale, she pointed to the rough time Democrats had with their Senate candidate in 2012. 

“While Democrats might be excited about potential Senate candidates in 2018, they are still the party whose voters nominated The Washington Post’s worst candidate of 2012,” she said. “The State Democrat party eventually disavowed Mark Clayton and refused to do anything to promote or support him. Sen. Corker won re-election with 65 percent of the total vote in Tennessee. The Tennessee Republican Party is committed to delivering the same kind of result in 2018.”

Democrats have 25 seats to defend in the 2018 cycle, compared to just nine for Republicans. Ten of the Democratic seats are in states that Trump won last year.

Tennessee is not especially high on the list of potential pick-ups for Democrats right now, with more attention instead going toward Arizona and Nevada. But the fact that there are candidates willing to come out and run in places like Tennessee ― or Texas, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) has announced he’ll challenge Sen. Ted Cruz (R) ― has been encouraging to Democrats.

“Democrats in Tennessee are energized and have been since the election. ... There has been a huge response to James Mackler’s announcement as a candidate for Senate, many people already asking where they can volunteer and donate money,” said Mary Mancini, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “Sen. Corker has spent too much time in Washington and has lost touch with the people he serves in Tennessee. ... It’s time for him to retire.” 

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