While Donald Trump gains national attention with controversial conservative commentary in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, a fellow political junkie contends there is an informal competition underway among state legislators who would like to be known as the Trump of Tennessee.
Current summer sensation nominees are Republican state Reps. Andy Holt of Dresden, Judd Matheny of Tullahoma and Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale.
Now, these gentlemen are not billionaires or TV celebrities. But in Trump-like fashion, they have seized on attention-getting national controversies and offered public remarks that appeal to the GOP’s right wing — and to Democrats, who love to quote them as examples of Republican extremism. As astute politicians, they have tailored their comments to Tennessee. So has state Democratic Chair Mary Mancini in news releases denouncing them.
Establishment/moderate Republicans, typified in Tennessee by Gov. Bill Haslam, are left in a hand-wringing mode, uncertain how to respond. Absent the confrontational situations posed by a presidential campaign requiring some sort of response, mostly they choose to ignore the aspiring Tennessee Trumps and hope they’ll go away — a perhaps doubtful proposition.
Holt has seized upon attacking Planned Parenthood, joining Trump and most other GOP presidential candidates in a call for defunding the organization that provides abortions as well as other women’s health services. In a press release last week, Holt declared he is launching his own personal investigation — though two committees of the Legislature also have a “fact-finding” hearing in the works — because “I will not be complicit in the profiteering of stolen souls.”
Matheny has seized upon the murder of servicemen in Chattanooga this summer as showing the “silence, inertia, or deliberate avoidance by many in our political leadership to the realities of the soft infiltration into Tennessee by individuals and institutions that have documented links to terrorist organizations.”
He was the first — others have since joined, albeit in perhaps more diplomatic fashion, and legislative committees will be investigating — to effectively question Haslam’s response to the Chattanooga slayings as inadequate. The governor wanted to review and study the situation before issuing executive orders (as recommended by Trump and accomplished by a few other Republican governors, including presidential candidate Scott Walker).
Womick has seized upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision and, at the moment, perhaps leads in the Tennessee Trump competition. After all, Womick has been bold enough to call for impeachment of Haslam for refusing to openly defy the court and, after that request gained no momentum, wrote a letter to all 95 county clerks statewide urging them to ignore the ruling, the state attorney general and Haslam by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Indeed, Womick may have outdone Trump, who has suggested, according to national media reports, that the impeachment of President Barack Obama might not be a bad idea while stopping short of an explicit call for doing so.
Mancini issued a press release with a headline calling for Republican leaders to “do something, anything to rein in Rick Womick” and his “grandstanding.” It was, of course, ignored.
But it’s safe to say they’re not going away. Indeed, likely there will be more competition for Tennessee Trump status in the months ahead. Several Republican state legislators have been leaders in cutting-edge conservative commentary in years past. Former state Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville comes to mind, for example, and doubtless would be in contention today had he not lost a bid for re-election last year.
Some might have seen Campfield’s defeat as a lesson in the political wisdom of controversy avoidance, practiced to a remarkable degree by Haslam But Holt, Matheny and Womick were all re-elected without opposition last year. And that may be a lesson in the political wisdom of controversy creation.
The guess here is that there will be more competition for Tennessee Trump status in the future; not less.
Tom Humphrey, retired Nashville bureau chief, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.