Sunday Column: A shot at TN relevancy in 2016 presidential primary relevancy in 2016

In recent past presidential primaries, Tennessee has been pretty much irrelevant to the process of picking national party nominees, but eight months out it appears there’s a shaky possibility that could change on the Republican side in 2016 — just maybe to the benefit of Jeb Bush.

This, perhaps, relates to all three of the Republicans holding statewide office — Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker — heaping praise upon Bush at the GOP’s recent annual Statesmen’s Dinner, though stopping short of formal endorsements that would be rather premature. (He doesn’t formally announce until Monday.)

There are suspicions among more conservative Republicans that the former Florida governor was designated keynote speaker at the event with a Bush boost in mind, given that national media reporting now has him becoming the great hope of moderate/establishment Republicans.

That includes the Tennessee trio – now that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s prospects have faded. Christie, who was the 2014 keynote speaker when riding fairly high as a presidential prospect, has had past praise heaped upon him by Haslam, who succeeded Christie as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

As noted in a recent Associated Press story, the support of statewide officeholders hasn’t meant a lot in past Tennessee presidential primaries. Haslam, Alexander and Corker liked Mitt Romney last time around.

But Rick Santorum won Tennessee’s presidential primary in 2012, beating Romney by more than 50,000 votes, with Newt Gingrich a fairly close third. Percentage-wise, that was 37 percent Santorum, 28 percent Romney and 24 percent Gingrich. In other words, the two conservatives combined had a solid majority versus the establishment guy.

In 2008 former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, like Santorum a darling of the social right and coached by former Tennessee GOP Chairman Chip Saltsman, won Tennessee’s presidential primary, albeit by only 15,000 votes, over John McCain, with Romney as No. 3.

Romney and McCain, of course, went on to win the nominations, meaning Tennessee was pretty much irrelevant in the national picture both years.

Tennessee Democrats, by the way, also opted for a loser in 2008, preferring Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama by about 54 percent to 41 percent. Obama was unopposed on the 2012 Democratic ballot. Tennessee apparently will be just as irrelevant in 2016 with Clinton the presumptive nominee at this point.

But on the Republican side, just maybe Tennessee could be relevant next year. Given that a day can be a lifetime in politics and the state presidential primary is eight months away, here’s the present hopeful scenario for the state GOP establishment:

A huge, sprawling crowd of contenders is developing in the GOP presidential primary, including both Santorum and Huckabee as well as other right-wing competition. The Republican conservative vote will thus be so splintered that, should Bush just match the modest/moderate performance of Romney or McCain, he would be deemed the winner, helping establish that all-important momentum.

The 2014 Tennessee primary will be on March 1, along with four bordering states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina. Some still call this “Super Tuesday.” Texas, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oklahoma also are planning March 1 presidential primaries.

Texas will be a fight between the state’s former governor, Rick Perry, and current U.S. senator, Ted Cruz. Minnesota and Massachusetts, meanwhile, are basically blue states where a moderate like Bush might be favored by win-conscious Republicans. Florida may also be a fight between favorite sons, Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Southerners are calling this the “SEC primary.” Oklahoma doesn’t have a college football team in the Southeastern Conference, but politically it’s somewhat akin to the red states that do. If Bush can sweep the March 1 primaries with a plurality of votes, he becomes the frontrunner with media-designated momentum and even conservative Republicans should then get aboard in a Clinton-versus-Bush general election.

So runs the scenario, meaning Tennessee would be at least somewhat relevant as part of a regional red-state rally for the establishment Republican candidate. Don’t be surprised if Coker’s name is further floated — not just by Alexander, who already has — as a vice presidential nominee prospect.

That’s not likely. Tennessee isn’t that important and national political considerations are otherwise problematic. But a President Jeb Bush might come back and keynote the 2017 Statesmen’s Dinner.

Note: This is slightly revised version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also available HERE.