One thing we’ve learned about politics over the past 40 years is that negative campaigning works – Willie Horton, Swiftboating, Lock Her Up.
That stuff works here at home, too. Remember the ad comparing 13th District House Democratic candidate Gloria Johnson to the hated Lane Kiffin, complete with scary Photoshopped mug shot? Not only did Johnson’s Republican opponent, Eddie Smith, win the election – the ad won some campaign operative a national award.
This fall looked like the same old story as Smith and Johnson faced off for the third time. Smith’s campaign (or maybe “outside” groups supporting him) ran ads featuring a scary photo of Johnson taken the morning after she’d spent a cold January night in a sleeping bag on the floor of the Knox County Democratic Party headquarters as part of a group that offered shelter to the homeless when the temperature plunged.
Johnson struck back with a mailer featuring a photo of a fluffy puppy and this message:
“Everybody wants Gloria to send an attack mailer. Instead, she’s sending you this puppy.”
She says she got more response from that piece than anything she’s ever done. Maybe it wouldn’t work for everyone, but it resonated for Johnson.
“Yeah, I could play dirty, too. I’m not going to,” she said.
Earlier this fall, a TV pundit wondered aloud whether Johnson would finally give up and quit running if she lost again this year. She’d narrowly lost two previous races to Smith after besting Republican Gary Loe in 2012 and serving a single term in office. The pundit’s disdain was palpable, but Johnson didn’t seem to notice. She just kept on knocking on doors with her army of volunteers.
And what they heard about most on those doorsteps was healthcare.
“Healthcare was it,” she said. “That’s what people want to talk about.”
Which was OK with Johnson, because that’s what she’s been talking about since she first waded into politics a decade ago, when she volunteered to help in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
As 2018 wore on, she noticed that Smith was starting to mention it, too – particularly when it came to protecting people with pre-existing conditions. But the 11th-hour change-up didn’t seem to do her Republican opponent much good, and she ended up winning by a margin of nearly 2,500 votes in a district that had previously been decided by whisker-thin margins. Her victory was so decisive that former critics are saying she’s got a lock on the seat until the Republicans gerrymander some more Republicans into the district when they redraw it after the 2020 census.
Johnson says she campaigned the same way she always has.
“I’ve been talking about healthcare so long, people knew who the healthcare candidate was,” she said.
When Smith conceded the election, he said that Donald Trump was a problem for him this time around. But Johnson doesn’t buy that, since the district was split about 50/50 in the 2016 presidential election and still leans Republican, by at least six percentage points. She believes it had more to do with what is happening – and not happening – in Washington and Nashville.
“Activism increased after the presidential election. The number of people paying attention has increased, and they noticed that the super-majority (of Republicans in the state legislature) has just overreached and not done right by the people,” she said. “Paying lip service to healthcare and education, not expanding Medicaid, letting those hospitals close.”
Tennova announcing its intention to close the former St. Mary’s Medical Center in the heart of the 13th District probably didn’t help Smith’s campaign, either, Johnson said.
“St. Mary’s closing is another example of what (those) guys caused by not expanding Medicaid. Now we’re seeing it in East Tennessee.”
Johnson benefited from a coordinated campaign effort with other Democrats and the help of groups like Planned Parenthood and TIRRC (Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition). Frequently, she didn’t even know who was helping her.
“You can’t coordinate,” she said, meaning that it’s illegal for candidates and “outside” groups to be in cahoots. “The only way I’d find out who was out there is somebody’d say ‘I canvassed for you today.’ I’d say, ‘You weren’t on our list,’ and they’d say, ‘I knocked for Planned Parenthood.’”
The bottom line?
“You can run as a progressive and talk about issues people care about in a Republican district and win. Republicans care about healthcare.”
She was gratified to hear other candidates say they were running because she was running.
“Part of it is just seeing a woman get out there and making it work. And it’s definitely going to carry over for the next woman who wants to run for something.”