Will Haslam back challenger in a GOP primary?

Gov. Bill Haslam may make Knoxville’s Richard Briggs the first challenger of an incumbent state legislator to receive his political endorsement in a Republican primary — and he has come fairly close already.

Briggs, a physician and Knox County commissioner, is opposing Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. Haslam joined other Republican leaders last week in criticizing Campfield for likening “Obamacare” to the murder of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust in a blog post.

“It was wrong, inappropriate and insensitive,” he said. “When you’re in a public office, your words matter and when you use words like that that are insdefensible, I think it’s wrong.”

In a Memphis news conference, however, Haslam (questioned by the Memphis Flyer’s Jackson Baker, who kindly provided a tape) combined his declaration that Campfield’s comments were “flat-out wrong” and “indefensible” with praise of Briggs when asked if he would be neutral in the 7th Senate District primary campaign.

“In most primary races, I’ve tried not to be involved,” he said. “I think it’s a good principle for a sitting governor not to be involved.”

But then he indicated that Briggs could be an exception.

“I’ve known Commissioner Briggs since he was a county commissioner while I was a city mayor. So I’ve known him and worked with him,” the governor said.

“He brings a really unique skill set,” he said.

When a reporter subsequently remarked that criticism of Campfield coupled with praise of Brigs appeared close to an endorsement of Briggs, Haslam agreed and said he was considering whether to back the challenger. He declined Thursday to elaborate.

The governor’s first break with the general principle of noninvolvement Republican legislative primaries came Tuesday when he backed House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, as he was attending Sargent’s official campaign kickoff event. Haslam said Sargent has been especially helpful in his legislative endeavors, notably by spearheading passage of the governor’s state budget legislation.

But the endorsement of Sargent brought quick criticism from the Tennessee Firearms Association, which contends — wrongly, says Sargent — that the lawmaker has maneuvered to defeat legislation the association supports.

“Gov. Haslam coming to Franklin to campaign for Rep. Sargent provides further evidence of their relationship and that the governor is rewarding Mr. Sargent for keeping certain pro-gun bills off the governor’s desk,” said John Harris, president of the TFA, in a news release.

In 2012, Haslam endorsed two Republican lawmakers facing hotly contested primary challenges — Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, then House Republican Caucus chairman, and Richard Montgomery, then House Education Committee chairman. Both lost.

He has never backed a challenger to a Republican incumbent.

Asked about Haslam’s comments, Campfield said he does not consider them as amounting to an endorsement and it would not be a major concern if the governor does officially back his opponent.

“If the governor makes an endorsement, he makes an endorsement. He doesn’t live in my district, so he’s not a voter,” Campfield said.

As far as the complimentary remarks about Briggs, Campfield said “the governor says nice things about everybody.” In fact, he said, Haslam complimented Campfield himself Thursday for supporting the governor’s “Tennessee Promise” legislation at a ceremonial signing of the bill in Knoxville. (Update note: Campfield posted on his blog a picture of himself and Haslam, both smiling, at the ceremonial signing event, HERE.)

As far as Haslam’s criticism of his Holocaust-related remarks, the senator said: “I’m sure people say bad things about the governor and his family. I’m not going to go down that road.”

“Sometimes gun owners shoot from the hip. Sometimes politicians shoot from the lip,” he said. “I think anybody who knows me knows there wasn’t any ill will meant (in the blog post).”