Tennessee’s Republican establishment is striving to move past last week’s sometimes bitter legislative primary and its potential impact on officeholder leadership. The aim now for fall campaigns: Slimming even more the ranks of the minority party Democrats.
The prospects look fairly bright for Republicans on both fronts, despite the losses of seven incumbent House members Thursday.
The defeat of those veterans — and close calls for a couple of others — are seen by some as an indication of growing division within the state’s majority party and as, possibly, a threat to House Speaker Beth Harwell remaining in her position.
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney, however, says that’s not likely. And he sees the GOP goal of a achieving a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate as “attainable,” given the party’s advantages through redistricting, fundraising superiority and voter distaste for President Obama.
Democrats say they can overcome their acknowledged disadvantages in money and redrawn district lines to make 2012 the start of a Democratic rebuilding process.
State Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester does not predict that Democrats can even hold their own Nov. 6. But he says that because of voter unhappiness with parts of the Republican legislative agenda, “young, energetic” Democratic candidates in key districts and a “new path forward” strategy can make 2012 a turnaround year for his party.
Forrester finds encouragement in last week’s GOP primary outcome, which he said “shows a Republican party clearly in disarray.” The chairman said he was “astonished” at the defeat of House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart — “the governor’s candidate and Beth Harwell’s candidate” — as well as some other GOP incumbent upsets.
“The party is clearly moving to the right,” he said. “We don’t hear the Republicans calling out their fringe, extremist candidates.”
Five Democratic incumbent legislators were defeated last week, but four of those lost in races where Republican redistricting deliberately made them run against another incumbent. Democrats say this shows their party is far more united.
Devaney said Republicans are united (though they didn’t have a unity tour this year). There is a possibility, though, that the party’s State Executive Committee may yet have a referee role in resolving some close primary contests. Three Republican winners, two of them being incumbent Reps. Tony Shipley of Kingsport and Vance Dennis of Savannah, won their races unofficially by less than a dozen votes.
State law makes the executive committees arbitrators of primary election challenges, which cannot be filed until the results are certified.
Any challenge to the reelection of Harwell as House speaker would not come until after the November election when the new House Republican Caucus holds its first meeting.
Harwell won the seat in a secret Caucus election. The results never officially announced.
Maggart had reportedly backed Harwell’s opponent at the time, Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, but had since become a trusted Harwell lieutenant. Most of the other incumbent Republican losers last week were also Harwell fans, so the losses inspired talk of a new challenge to Harwell, who has been accused of being too moderate by some conservatives and was also criticized by Second Amendment, gun-rights advocates.
But Harwell also made strategic endorsements in several open seats where no incumbent was running, giving political donations to the favored candidates. Victories by those Republican candidates — Andrew Farmer of Sevierville and Gary Loe of Knoxville, for example — could offset any loss of caucus support from defeated incumbents.
“She’s a conservative and she’s going to remain speaker,” predicted Devaney. “She has done an excellent job shepherding through legislation that had been bottled up by Democrats for years.”
The National Rifle Association targeted Maggart for her role in a Republican leadership that bottled up legislation which would have allowed gun owners to bring their weapons onto the property of companies that prohibit guns, provided they are left inside a locked car.
The NRA’s Political Victory Fund targeted Maggart with $75,000 in spending while endorsing her opponent, Courtney Rogers, who won. After the election, the NRA declared in a news release that it will renew efforts to pass the legislation next session.
The NRA effort was part of a new surge in “independent expenditure” spending in state legislative races during the primary. While Republicans were targeted in the primary, Forrester said he expects Democrats to be next because pro-Republican “corporate money” funds most such efforts.
GOP chair Devaney said the independent expenditures were “a new phenomena in a primary for us…but certainly these same groups have helped in general elections” in the past.
He also downplayed the significance of upsets of incumbents, saying each contest had its own special situation.
“I don’t think it’s indicative of anything that’s happening across the state in terms of an anti-incumbent movement or that sort of thing,” he said.
In the past legislative session, Republicans held 64 seats in the House and Democrats had 34 with one Independent. The Republican Senate advantage was 20-12.
In the House, there are 52 seats with no Democrat running this fall versus just 24 with no Republican running. Setting aside Independent Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, who has a Republican opponent but no Democrat, that leaves just 27 seats where there is competition between the two parties.
In the Senate, there are only nine seats up this year with both Republican and Democratic candidates.
Republicans are thus assured of a majority in both chambers even before the campaign begins. The question is how big a majority.
With a gain of two seats in both the Senate and the House, Republicans will have a two-thirds “super majority.” That means all Democrats could walk out and the Legislature would still have a quorum to function without them, and Republicans could suspend normal rules to pass bills instantly even with unanimous Democratic opposition.
Forrester said Democrats, with limited resources, will focus on seats they see as winnable. Republicans, on the other hand, appear ready to go after almost remaining Democrats in seats where there is competition.
Devaney on Friday cited House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and veteran Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, as potential targets. Both survived Republican challengers in the 2010 GOP surge that swept 14 incumbent Democrats out of office.
Forrester suggested as possible targets for Democrats Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who he said faces an “egregious charge of assaulting his wife.” Ragan faces former Rep. Jim Hackworth of Clinton, while Hawk faces former Democratic Rep. Eddie Yokley of Greeneville.
“They (Hackworth and Yokley) were swept out in a unique red tide in 2010,” said Forrester. “We believe they will be swept back in this year.”
But Devaney professed optimism that the red tide has not stopped rolling through Tennessee.