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When progressive organizations can be their own worst enemy

4 min read

Eric Coleman is a dream candidate. He’s a retired Naval veteran injured in the line of duty, a business owner, and is well known in the community for his extensive volunteer work. He’s also a very strong advocate for sensible gun laws—while his GOP opponent, an NRA member, supports the exact opposite.

TN State Senate Candidate Eric Coleman (D-District 32)

Coleman also has been endorsed by VoteVets, Memphis Indivisible, and the Tennessee chapters of Planned Parenthood and the AFL-CIO.  

Best of all, he has a real shot: Coleman is running for state senate in a district that includes Shelby County, which is home to Memphis, and Tipton County. There are over 106,000 registered voters, yet his GOP opponent only received a little over 6,000 in the primary. The majority of votes will come from Shelby County, but the GOP candidate from Tipton split the vote in his primary. This means that with even a fair turnout from Memphis, Democrats could flip this seat—especially in an off-year election. This is the kind of state election Democrats nationwide should get excited about.

This is also why a fellow Kos member’s piece on this campaign is once again making me see red, and reminding me how far we have to work to catch up to our GOP counterparts. 

Moms Demand Action (MDA) is an organization whose entire mission is to prevent gun violence. I support their cause; they do good work, and several of their members are helping Eric Coleman. Their page asks for people to contact Congress about gun reform, and they also hold rallies. But one thing the group apparently refuses to do is endorse allies during special elections.

I reached out to the Coleman campaign, as well as another progressive organization working on his behalf. It seems that Mr. Coleman was asked to fill out paperwork for an endorsement, but didn’t receive it. His advocate told me that he was informed that MDA doesn’t endorse “outside of election season.” For the record, I have never heard of right-wing organizations putting these same ridiculous restrictions on themselves.

I really don’t understand this. I suppose one strategy for sensible gun laws is to call NRA-owned and -funded legislators and ask them to do the right thing, but I think a much more effective solution would be to work to get people actually aligned with the MDA mission elected. Volunteer for these people, campaign, or, at the very least, just endorse them. That costs nothing.

For those concerned about the “bandwidth” required to vet candidates, I would argue two things: This is the most effective thing an organization can do and it’s worth the time; secondly, how much time could “vetting” possibly take? There aren’t that many special elections, and this is a single issue. By the way, for anyone worried that Mr. Coleman might suddenly declare that he’s a secret Russian agent trying to help the NRA, the endorsement could always be revoked.

All progressive organizations need to focus on winning elections. Even if the candidate loses, the effort puts people out in the community spreading the message. It’s win-win. Democrats really need to do more to make headway in these red states. Currently, there are only five Democrats, out of 38 seats in the state Senate. Four of the five Democrats are women, and three of the five are black. It’s easy to write this off as just the result of too many Republicans, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s about strategy and leadership. Democrats can and should be doing much better. Republicans here in Florida never cared that they were outnumbered—and their grassroots organizing ran circles around Democrats. Now, the legislature looks more like Oklahoma than a swing state.

When I spoke to Eric Coleman, he spent most of the time talking about how to improve Democratic chances in Tennessee for the candidates who will follow him, as opposed to a Trumpian stump speech on how great he is. That is refreshing. He called for reforms in the state party platform that would allow for removal of inactive chairs, and make it easier for a small quorum to create a county party, even if there are only a few members. Win or lose, Coleman knows that grassroots candidates need resources, and if we ever hope to build up the national party, it starts by not conceding these red areas.


Coleman’s opponent is a developer with no experience. He’s barely campaigning—just pretty much holding fundraisers. As a party, we need to resolve to contest every race everywhere, and do (more than) the bare minimum to help them win. 

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