Aug 7, 2023 - Election

Mayoral runoff will test Nashville's blue wall

Side-by-side portraits of Freddie O'Connell and Alice Rolli.

Mayoral candidates Freddie O'Connell and Alice Rolli. Photos: courtesy of the O'Connell and Rolli campaigns

For 60 years, Democrats have had a hold on the Nashville mayor's race.

  • Mayoral elections are nonpartisan in Nashville, but every mayor since the Metro government formed has identified as a Democrat.

Why it matters: Councilmember Freddie O'Connell, the frontrunner who came in first place in the general election, has built a progressive coalition to extend that trend. Conservative Alice Rolli is seeking to make history by punching through Nashville's blue wall.

By the numbers: An examination of recent election results shows Democrats remain strong in Music City.

  • In 2015, former school board chairperson David Fox ran a general election campaign aimed at winning over Republican voters. Fox lost to Megan Barry by 10 points in the runoff.
  • In the first partisan elections for Nashville school board races last year, Democrats pulled off a clean sweep. The closest margin was in District 2, which board chairperson Rachael Anne Elrod won by 19 points.

State of play: A pre-election poll by the political consulting firm Baker Group Strategies found O'Connell leading Rolli in a hypothetical matchup by a margin of 49% to 23%.

Yes, but: Rolli denounced the partisan divide in her victory speech even though she touted her Republican bona fides on the campaign trail.

  • "This city can buck every naysayer who says it's a nonpartisan race as long as you're a Democrat," Rolli told supporters on election night. "We can govern. We can welcome Republicans, Democrats and independents to set aside those labels and do what's right."

Of note: On Election Day, a text to voters named Rolli as "the endorsed Republican candidate." It's unclear who paid for the text.

  • Rolli worked for prominent Republicans throughout her career.

The intrigue: Barry tells Axios she sees parallels to the 2015 race. But she points out O'Connell's general election margin over Rolli was much larger than her margin over Fox eight years ago.

  • "I think Nashville showed folks who are voting are definitely more progressive than we were in 2019 and 2015."
  • "It also puts to rest the fears that some progressives have had that everyone moving to Davidson County is a Republican. I don't think they are. I think they're progressives who want to see Nashville be a great city."

The other side: In a preview of how Rolli may look to flip the script, state Sen. Jack Johnson, who represents neighboring Williamson County, says she's well-positioned to improve relations between the city and the state.

  • "The feud, or whatever you want to call it, that's existed between Nashville and the state government in recent years is not healthy. It's not productive for anyone. ... She will be a fierce advocate for Nashville, but she will be able to disagree without being disagreeable."
  • "It's not going to be easy, but I absolutely think she can win. It's all about voter turnout and energizing voters. She is resonating with voters, so now she just has to broaden that with folks who voted for other candidates."

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