By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — During the last eight U.S. Senate primaries in Tennessee, an average of about 686,000 people have voted in each contest. Under a Republican proposal advancing in the state Legislature, the number picking nominees would drop to 132.
The bill (SB471), set for a state Senate vote on Monday, would shift that nominating power from primary voters to state lawmakers of either party.
“This is a way we can actually choose the candidate and make them more responsible,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who supports the plan. “The federal government is completely broken, and there’s got to be something to get their attention. And this could be it.”
Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, the measure’s main sponsor, says it is aimed at returning Tennessee closer to the system used before 1913, when state lawmakers directly appointed U.S. senators. That corruption-marred system was replaced with direct election by the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Niceley said his bill — which would apply only to primaries and not to general elections — is based on an initiative by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. A spokesman for the conservative think tank did not return a message seeking comment.
Niceley is also a major proponent of holding popular elections for state Supreme Court justices in Tennessee. His bill would go into effect after next year’s election, meaning it wouldn’t affect Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s efforts to be re-nominated for another term.
The measure was advanced to the Senate floor on a 7-1 vote, with no debate in committee this week. But there are signs that not everyone is on board.
“Democrats believe in the people picking the politicians, instead of the politicians picking their own,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron.
And not all Republicans are keen on the idea, either. Chris Devaney, the chairman of the state GOP, acknowledged that many conservatives want to do away with the 17th Amendment, but said that the bill wouldn’t accomplish that.
“I am concerned that the outcomes of such legislation may not achieve the desired effect of fixing what ails Washington,” he said in a statement.
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said the bill would run counter to a century of movement toward greater participation in the political process.
Oppenheimer said the change would be perceived as “a move of taking political power away from the people and moving it to an elite group of elected officials.”
“It would smack of being elite, boss-controlled and anti-democratic,” he said. “And potentially corrupting.”
Participation in Senate primaries has fluctuated over the years, depending on whether there were seriously contested races for an open seat, or races in which an incumbent was cruising toward re-election.
An analysis of the eight Senate elections over the last 18 years shows an average of 686,000 people voted in primaries.
The high was 1 million voters in the 2002 primary, which led to the contest between Alexander and Democrat Bob Clement. The low was in 2000, when about 377,000 votes were cast to determine the general election matchup between then-Sen. Bill Frist and little-known Democrat Jeff Clark.
Last year’s primary turnout of 618,000 was unusually high for Sen. Bob Corker’s successful re-election effort, largely driven by the Republican’s active campaigning despite little serious opposition. Corker won nearly 390,000 votes, or 85 percent, in the GOP primary.
Contentious Senate primaries on the Republican side have been memorable for their viciousness. In 1994, a “six pack” of Republican candidates was led by Frist, a Nashville physician with little political experience, and Corker, a former state finance commissioner who would go on to become mayor of Chattanooga.
The Frist campaign labeled Corker “the Chattanooga boohoo” and “rotten pond scum.” Meanwhile, the Corker camp called Frist a “cat killer” using stray cats to practice transplants during medical school. Frist defeated Corker 44 percent to 32 percent and went on to win the general election.
Frist’s retirement from the Senate 12 years later drew a three-man field led by Corker. It featured pointed attacks from his two main GOP rivals that led the only Democrat in the race, then-U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., to liken the trio to the Three Stooges.
Corker ultimately won the grueling primary, but appeared exhausted after the strenuous race for the nomination, which opened an opportunity for Ford to close the gap. He ran a close race until the general election. Corker ended up winning by fewer than 3 percentage points.
Ramsey, who finished a distant third in the Republican gubernatorial primary of 2010, told reporters this week that the bill’s prospects for passage are about 50-50.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick called the proposal “intriguing,” but said he wasn’t certain there would be enough time to flesh out the details in the weeks remaining before the end of the legislative session.
“It would keep people from having to be a multi-millionaire to run in the primaries,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “This would open it up to more people.”
But McCormick conceded that other factors might also play into whether a change should be made.
“The people might also want to be able to vote rather than have the Legislature decide,” he said.