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Democrats in Tennessee are hoping for a comeback, but first they need to find someone who can lead them back.

The 2014 election is expected to be a harsh one for Democrats in Tennessee. Republicans hold solid majorities in the state legislature, Gov. Bill Haslam so far faces very little challenge, and President Barack Obama's low popularity has waned still more.

The filing period for candidates to register for 2014 opened Friday, but time already is running short for Democrats to find people willing to carry the party's banner in November. Earlier this week, Sara Kyle, one of the last Democrats to win statewide office, announced she would not take on Haslam.

These bleak prospects come despite a few glimmers of hope for Democrats. The party holds the mayor's office in each of the state's seven largest cities and, despite the GOP's popularity at the ballot box, a third of Tennessee's voters consider themselves independents, according to a November poll by Vanderbilt University.

"I think it is true that 2014 is going to be very a very good year for Republicans in the state and not a very good year for Democrats," said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "But for Democrats, it's about having qualified candidates."

Tennessee Democrats have seen a quick reversal of fortunes since 2006, when Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen trounced Republican state Sen. Jim Bryson by more than 700,000 votes to win a second term and Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. fell just 50,000 votes short of beating Bob Corker, the Republican former mayor of Chattanooga, for the U.S. Senate. That year, the state's five incumbent Democratic congressmen all won re-election easily, with only token opposition.

The party's slide appears to have begun after the 2008 election of Obama, passage of the Affordable Care Act and rise of the tea party. In 2010, three Democratic congressmen announced plans to retire rather than seek re-election.

The GOP captured all three of those seats in 2010, as well as control of the state House. That allowed them to consolidate their gains with redistricting. The 2012 election left Tennessee Democrats with just two seats in Congress, 28 in the state House and seven in the state Senate.

Democrats also had to bear the ignominy that November of fielding a nominee for U.S. Senate, a political unknown named Mark Clayton, whom their own leadership could not support. Based on Clayton's association with an organization that had been labeled a hate group for its anti-gay views, the Tennessee Democratic Party urged voters to write in the name of another candidate — any candidate — rather than vote for the party's nominee.

The chances that the political pendulum will swing as quickly back in their favor are slim. More than 60 percent of Tennessee voters approve of Haslam, the Vanderbilt poll found, and a majority of Tennessee voters say the state is on the right track. Most voters approve of the Republican-ruled legislature, too.

Democrats at most hope to chip away at the Republican majority in 2014.

"Are we going to take back the House in 2014? No," said state Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. "But are we going to take some strides toward it? Yes."

The biggest risk Democrats face in 2014 is a repeat of the Clayton situation. Heading into the year, only a handful of candidates have announced they plan to run for the party's Senate nomination, and none of those has held state office.

They have been even less eager to take on Haslam. No Democrat of any standing has announced a campaign for governor.

Some in the party had hoped Kyle would take on that role. The wife of Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle and the niece of former Gov. Frank Clement, the Memphis attorney is one of the few people in the party who could boast of having won a statewide race before. Twenty years ago, she won a seat on the Public Service Commission, a now defunct regulatory board.

The victory made Kyle only the second woman to win a statewide election in Tennessee. Only one Democrat, Bredesen, has won a statewide election since.

Democratic Chairman Roy Herron issued only a brief statement, saying that he understood that her "family comes first."

He did not respond to requests for an interview. But Turner said Kyle's decision should not be a great setback.

"I think it would be great if you had somebody at the top of the ticket," he said, "but we (House candidates) expected all along we'd be by ourselves."

Stronger in cities

The party may have better options in future elections. Even as Republicans have grown stronger in Tennessee, Democrats have won the mayor's office in Chattanooga and Knoxville, both historically GOP strongholds. Democrats also hold the mayor's offices in Nashville, Memphis, Clarksville, Murfreesboro and Jackson.

The office of mayor has been a springboard for candidates in recent elections. Corker, Bredesen and Haslam all came to statewide prominence as mayors. Perhaps, Geer said, Democrats can produce another such candidate in time for the elections in 2018, when both the governor's office and a Senate seat will be up for grabs.

"It's all about having good candidates," he said.

"Just think about Phil Bredesen. If all of a sudden he said he was going to run for Senate — which I don't think he'd do — he'd change the dynamics of the race that day."

Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283, csisk@tennessean.com, or on Twitter @chassisk.

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