Going into Super Tuesday, it seemed possible that the Tennessee Republican primary tradition of conservatives splitting their votes to assure plurality victory for a moderate would hold true.
Coming out of Super Tuesday, just maybe a new normal has been achieved wherein the conservative wing of the Republican party can believe in better.
Back in the old normal, or maybe the ancient normal, Tennessee Republicans were pretty much a united bunch because they were the state’s minority party. Moderation ruled with guys like Howard Baker, Winfield Dunn and Lamar Alexander, and the cultural warrior wing went along against the dominant Democrats, who were often split into factions.
Indeed, there was a time when the traditional mountain Republicans had power in our fair state by deciding which Democratic faction to align with in a given political situation. Often this involved a clash of Democrat personalities rather than policy, and the Republicans could tip the scales.
Party roles are now reversed and, as Republicans have grown in power, factionalism within the GOP has become ever more pronounced. The moderate men — call them business oriented, silk stocking or establishment, if you prefer — prevailed on a statewide basis, but the social conservatives gained ground and were responsible for most of the party’s growth.
Recall that in 2006, conservative candidates Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary collectively had more votes than Bob Corker in the U.S. Senate primary, despite being dramatically outspent by Corker. But with the vote split, Corker achieved a plurality victory.
Similarly, in 2010, moderate Bill Haslam won the gubernatorial primary though conservatives Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey, together, had more votes. As with Corker, the moderate man had a lot more money — both in personal funds and in contributions.
The 2012 Tennessee presidential primary featured a similar setup — moderate Mitt Romney facing conservatives split between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, dramatically outspending them and backed by the state’s Republican establishment, led by Haslam. (The governor, incidentally, has used the slogans “new normal” and “believe in better” in slightly different contexts.)
But it was not to be. Santorum swept 37 percent of the vote, 10 points ahead of Romney, and Gingrich came in with about 24 percent.
The social conservatives collectively had such a substantial margin over the moderates that, even when split, they prevailed in the statewide voting. Gingrich and Santorum together had 61 percent of the vote. Throw in Ron Paul, and it’s close to 70 percent.
A couple of caveats may be in order.
First, the presidential primary battle was compressed into just a few days within Tennessee – versus a year and half in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign — and the pro-Romney, anti-Santorum advertising didn’t kick in until early voting was almost over. If the ads had started earlier, the moderate money man might have had more impact – but perhaps by building up Gingrich rather than Romney.
Also, one suspects that some Democrats with mischief in mind crossed over into the GOP primary and voted for Santorum. But probably not too many.
So this still contrasts with the Haslam and Corker elections, wherein the competing conservatives were splitting up a much more narrow majority. This would indicate that, in the new normal, social conservatives now have very strong voting control of the Tennessee Republican party on a statewide basis.
While that is something of a milestone marker, or maybe a high-water mark, it’s not exactly a shocking development. The trend toward social conservatism has been apparent for some time in the Legislature, where it’s a general rule of thumb — there are exceptions — that the less seniority a Republican legislator has, the more socially conservative he or she is.
On policy issues, the more controversial efforts of social conservatives at the state level — say the “don’t say gay” bill, to use one that everybody’s heard about — are still often stalled, watered down or outright thwarted by compromise-prone, business-oriented Republican moderates such as Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell.
That may continue for a while.
After GOP-dictated redistricting this year, the party’s legislative majority is likely to grow stronger. But it’s almost inevitable that, as there more Republicans, there will be more division within the Republican ranks. And if the apparent trend continues, social conservatives may grow in power as the moderates weaken within our state. Perhaps to the point that someday remnant minority Democrats may be able to decide political matters statewide by deciding which faction of Republicans they will align with.
Hard to say who will be believing in better at that time.
Note: This is an unedited and slightly expanded version of Sunday’s column for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.