Tennessee Republicans have reached another high-water mark for dominance of state government by gaining a 70-28 majority over Democrats in the state House and 26-7 advantage in the state Senate – a six-seat GOP gain in both chambers.
With Republicans already controlling the governor’s office, two U.S. Senate seats and seven of nine U.S. House seats, there is some speculation that the “new normal” — a phrase favored by Gov. Bill Haslam — will mean more quarreling within party ranks than with diminished Democrats.
When a reporter asked House Speaker Beth Harwell at a Wednesday news conference if 70 House Republicans would be “a lot of cats to herd at times,” she nodded her head affirmatively and replied, “Yes!”
The speaker went on to say, however, that “I think our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it” and voters had effectively approved of the party’s legislators continuing on the course begun with smaller GOP majorities in the past two years.
Still, Harwell balked at taking a position on two controversial issues that some of her conservative fellow Republicans are pushing for passage in the 108th General Assembly, which will convene in January: implementing a school voucher system in Tennessee and prohibiting any expansion of Medicaid coverage.
Haslam has also refrained from taking a position on those matters, saying more study is needed, even with other Republicans already backing the ideas — and Democrats generally opposing them.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, who survived an aggressive and negative challenge to his re-election by Republicans, said he thinks there are now, in effect, three parties in Tennessee — regular Republicans, “tea party” Republicans and Democrats.
“Many of their (Republican caucus) new members appear to be extremists from the far right of the political spectrum,” Fitzhugh said, predicting that in future years Democrats will “claw back” into a more potent political force in the Legislature.
Fitzhugh and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said Democrats will work with Republicans — both praised Harwell and Haslam — so long as they focus on jobs and economic issues. They expressed some concern that Republicans would use their “super majority” status to shut off debate, block Democratic bills from being considered and otherwise railroad legislation into law.
Harwell said she intends to “treat every member fairly, Democrat or Republican” and “it will be my desire not to cut off debate.”
The Republicans actually won seven seats previously held by Democrats, but one of their incumbents — Rep. Jim Gotto of Nashville — was unseated, leaving the net gain of six. Republicans swept six Senate seats previously held by Democrats.
Democrats insisted there are now only 24 House seats with a Democratic majority of voters after redistricting and, given that and the huge fundraising advantage enjoyed by Republicans, they actually did well to come out of the election holding 28 House seats.
Note: See also Rick Locker reporting that the 2013 Legislature will be “a different place.”