Republican domination of the state Legislature and the redistricting plans enacted earlier this year have apparently combined with intra-party philosophical and personal disputes to produce an unprecedented surge in challenges to incumbent state legislators this summer.
Twenty-three incumbent Republican legislators face opposition in the Aug. 2 primary election. That compares to just five primary challenges to GOP incumbents in both 2010 and 2008.
On the Democratic side, seven incumbents face primary challengers this year compared to just three in 2010 and five in 2008 primaries.
The upsurge in Democrat primary contests may be attributed directly to the Republican-controlled redistricting, which is forcing Democratic incumbents to run against one another in the three House districts and one Senate district. Setting aside those four incumbent-versus-incumbent races, only three sitting Democratic legislators have primary challenges on Aug. 2.
Redistricting appears to have had a less direct impact on the surge in challenges to Republican incumbents. In several cases, a redrawing of district lines has left incumbents with new constituents, perhaps making them appear more vulnerable.
Gov. Bill Haslam, responding to reporters’ questions last week, said he was initially “a little bit surprised” at the number of challenges to incumbent Republicans. But on reflection, he said, it’s really not too surprising considering the trend toward making districts either solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.
That is certainly the case with the House and Senate redistricting plans enacted in January under Republican control for the first time since Reconstruction. State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester has said that the party views only 24 of Tennessee’s 99 House seats and eight of 33 Senate seats as solidly Democratic in the new alignment.
State Republican officials have not made a similar pronouncement and the state party’s executive director, Adam Nickas, declined to do so in an interview last week. But a review of the lineup of legislative candidates this year in the new districts indicates that Republicans are almost guaranteed 50 House seats and are absolutely guaranteed 17 seats in the Senate.
In 34 House seats, there is no Democrat even on the ballot. That will go to 35 if a court ruling declaring Democrat Shelly Breeding ineligible to run in Knox County’s District 89 stands on appeal. In the Senate, where terms run four years instead of two as in the House, 11 incumbent Republicans are not facing re-election this year and six who are up have no Democratic opponent.
Only a relative handful of legislative seats — perhaps a dozen or so in the House and three or four in the Senate — will have truly competitive partisan races this fall.
Given that voters are now grouped into districts where one party or the other is assured of winning — and in most cases statewide that party is Republican — most elections will be decided in August rather than November.
“A lot more of the challenges come from within the parties,” said Haslam. “As districts become either more red or more blue, then the way you’re going to beat someone in one of those districts is to run to the right if it’s a red state or district or to the left if it’s a blue district.”
Of the 20 incumbent Republican representatives and the three Republican senators facing Aug. 2 challengers, most — but not all — do appear to face opponents seeking to characterize themselves as more conservative than the lawmaker now holding office. The reverse may be true in most of Democrat-versus-Democrat contests.
The prospects of the challengers for unseating their incumbent opponents appear to vary widely.
For example, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, would appear to have little concern from perennial candidate Basil Marceaux, who gained Internet fame via video as an independent candidate for governor in 2010 but got only 58 votes statewide and who has since spent some time in jail.
On the other hand, some observers contend freshman Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mount Juliet, might even be an underdog to Susan Lynn, who formerly held the Wilson County seat.
In the Senate, perhaps the most seriously challenged incumbent is Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, who unseated then-Sen. Raymond Finney in the 2008 Republican primary. Finney had defeated then-Sen. Bill Clabough in the 2004 primary. No other legislative seat in the state has such a history of incumbent turnover.
Tennessee Conservatives Fund, which bills itself as a Tea Party-oriented political action committee and which counts former Rep. Lynn as a member, last week issued a news release endorsing challenger Scott Hughes and characterizing Overbey as liberal — a label the incumbent adamantly rejects.
The PAC’s executive director, Erick Stamper, said the group considered endorsing other Republican primary challengers — including those opposing Reps. Bob Ramsey of Maryville, Charles Sargent of Franklin and Vance Dennis of Savannah — but that, because of “limited time and resources,” chose to focus on just one race.
The PAC’s limited resources amounted to just $26.39 cash on hand in its last financial disclosure, dated March 31, though Stamper said fundraising is under way and the group also plans to help Hughes by recruiting volunteers to make calls and perhaps go door-to-door on his behalf.
Overbey had a cash-on-hand balance of $246,470 in his campaign account as of March 31.
A May poll by Vanderbilt University found that only 28 percent of Tennesseans overall approve of the way the state Legislature is operating versus 61 percent approval of Haslam’s job performance and 41 percent approval of President Obama.
GOP executive director Nickas, however, said the upsurge in Republican challengers is not related to any unhappiness with job performance in the Legislature, but rather to increased interest in becoming politically active.
“There has been an uptick in people interested in running for office unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Nickas. “I wouldn’t attribute that to dissatisfaction with what’s happening in the state. I attribute it to dissatisfaction with what’s happening in Washington.”
He acknowledged, however, there also is some general anti-incumbent sentiment within the electorate this year.
“People know that someone is to blame and sometimes everybody gets lumped together,” he said.
In East Tennessee, Republican incumbents facing primary challenges include:
n Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport, who Stamper described as “a Tea Party favorite,” is challenged by former Kinsport City Councilman Ben Mallicote. There is no Democrat to face the winner in November.
n Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville, who has been charged with domestic assault, has three challengers in the Republican primary. The winner will face former Rep. Eddie Yokley, a Democrat with no primary opposition, in the fall.
n Rep. Dale Ford of Jonesborough, who is opposed by James “Micah” Van Huss. Ford was among those facing a primary challenger in 2010, but won by a better than 3-to-1 margin.
n Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, who is challenged by Grady Caskey, president of the Blount County Education Association. No Democrat is running in the district.
n Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, opposed by Phil Morgan Jr., a Newport farmer. No Democrat is running.
Rep. Dennis Montgomery of Sevierville, who faces an active campaign by Dale Carr, also of Sevierville. Haslam has said he will support Montgomery in the primary.
n Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville, challenged by Tona Moore, who Stamper said has backing from Tea Party activists. There is no Democratic candidate.
n Rep. Eric Watson of Cleveland, challenged by David Kimbro. There is no Democratic candidate.
n Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland, challenged by Jack Epperson, who declares on his campaign website: “If you like the direction our government is going, vote for the incumbent. He is a true politician. If you want a change vote for a citizen, vote for Jack Epperson.” No Democrat running.
n Rep. Jim Cobb of Spring City, who faces an apparently vigorous challenge in a revised district from insurance agent Ron Travis. No Democrat running.
n Rep. Julia Hurley of Lenoir City is challenged by former Roane County Commissioner Kent Calfee in the primary. Democrat Jack McNew will face the winner in November.
The only Democrats facing a primary challenge in East Tennessee are Reps. Tommie Brown and Joanne Favors, who were thrown together in the same Chattanooga district by the redistricting.
Elsewhere in the state, perhaps the most notable challenge is Courtney Rogers’ run against House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville. Maggart has been targeted by the Tennessee Firearms Association, which contends she blocked a vote on legislation favoring the rights of gun owners.
In 2010, two of the five challenges to Republican incumbents were successful — now-Reps. Cameron Sexton of Crossville and Dennis Powers of Jacksboro. On the Democratic side, no incumbent has been defeated since the 2008 loss of then-Sen. Rosalind Kurita to Sen. Tim Barnes of Clarksville.
Note: This is a slightly revised version of a story appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel.