Sunday Column: Republican Referendum on the TN Status Quo

Setting aside the impact of personalities and local politics, insofar as that’s possible, this week’s primary elections may be seen as a Republican voter referendum on the new normal of our state’s leadership under one-party rule.
The belief that this is so is clearly illustrated by the Republican Establishment Trinity (RET) — Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — taking sides in many of the two dozen contests where incumbent Republican legislators are being challenged.
For Harwell and her chief lieutenant, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, the selection of favorites has extended beyond incumbent protection to financial contributions in a half-dozen or so open seats where there is no incumbent. And not all incumbents have received donations.
This is understandable. By somewhat reliable rumors, Harwell was elected speaker by a single vote in the House Republican Caucus after the 2010 elections over then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada. The actual vote is an official Republican secret.

Thus, Harwell and McCormick — damned as moderates in some conservative conversations, quietly in Legislatorland, more openly elsewhere — recognize that, if the folks who back them are unseated, there’s a strong possibility they will be unseated from the leadership positions by a Casada-type conservative in the after-election caucus elections before the 108th General Assembly convenes in January.
So they are sending money to their friends and to some who they would like to be friends in those open seats — the selections made, one suspects, on the basis of who is figured to win the primary. Say, for example, Andrew Farmer in the open House District 17 of Sevier and Jefferson counties and Gary Loe in the open House District 13 of Knox County.
Haslam has a less direct and personal interest since he’s not on the ballot this year, but it is a significant interest nonetheless. He has to count on those elected to the next General Assembly to go along with his game plans — voting for the bills he wants passed, axing those he doesn’t.
And there’s his image, which will be a consideration when he is on the ballot in a couple of years. This summer, there have been rumblings of discontent with the governor in right-wing Republican ranks. Haslam would rather not see some fellow elected who would stand on the House or Senate floor and shout the discontentment.
The governor has limited his endorsements to verbal declarations and, of course, showing up at fundraisers as the celebrity guest. He has not, as of the most recent disclosures, sent any actual money to Republicans embattled in a primary. His personal PAC sits idle and, he indicated recently, likely will remain that way until after the primaries, when he will join in giving money to GOP guys and gals.
Ramsey has been the least engaged of the RET this primary season because, of course, he feels the least threatened. His boldest step has been to endorse Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville over a more conservative challenger. Ramsey likes the current lineup of votes for himself as speaker, sees no threat on the horizon and is thus content with the status quo.
But that status quo is under attack this summer. And, contrary to some suggestions, not all the attacks come from those to the right of the establishment. Most, maybe. But you can make a case that some challengers are more moderate than some incumbents — for example, Rep. Joshua Evans, one of those who has not received a Harwell-McCormick donation or a Haslam blessing. His challenger, Lee Harrell, is a lobbyist for the middle-of-the-road Tennessee School Boards Association.
And some come from off to the side, as in the case of House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, who may be the poster child for RET favorites under attack. Her chief critic is the National Rifle Association, which has made a single-shot $75,000 effort to help her opponent. Interestingly, the only other race where the NRA gave any financial help at all was a $2,500 gift to Evans.
The list of winners and losers in Thursday’s elections, therefore, may be a mixed bag. As a pre-election guess, however, the prediction here is that the establishment will remain established.

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