Ramsey: TN Republicans have reached their peak

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a driving force in the Republican boom in Tennessee, is taking a final victory lap before retiring from politics.

The Blountville auctioneer was scheduled to be honored at the state GOP’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville on Friday evening, an event that has grown along with the fortunes of Republicans in Tennessee politics.

Having presided over vast Republican gains in the Tennessee General Assembly that took the GOP from an afterthought to near complete control, Speaker Ramsey, who served two terms in the state House before being elected to the Senate in 1996, announced earlier this year that he would not seek another term.

“There’s not a lot more to accomplish,” Ramsey told The Associated Press in an interview in his legislative office this week. “On top of the fact that I have five grandkids, it made that decision not that hard, honestly.”

Along with the Democrats’ paltry five seats in the Senate, they hold only 26 of 99 seats in the House. And they haven’t fielded a competitive non-incumbent in a statewide race since former U.S. Rep Harold Ford Jr. narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker in 2006.

But as Ramsey, who has declined opportunities to run for the U.S. House but made and unsuccessful bid for the gubernatorial nomination in 2010, heads for the exits there is some question about whether Republicans have hit their high-water mark in Tennessee.

The remaining seats held by Democrats in the state Legislature and Congress are in urban or minority areas where the GOP has struggled to make inroads. At the same time, borderline districts currently held by Republicans could be threatened by Democrats energized by the presidential race — particularly with Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee.

“We won’t go any further,” Ramsey said. “We’re not going to do any better than 28-5 in the Senate.”

But that’s not to say that Democrats appear poised to swing the pendulum back in their favor.

“There’s ebbs and flows in majorities,” Ramsey said. “But I don’t see it changing anytime soon. There’s two or three seats we have right now that could be close, it’s no secret. … But with the personalities we have right now we can hold those seats as long as we want to.”

Ramsey acknowledges that the Republican takeover of the Senate and the rest of state government would have happened without him — but probably not as quickly or as overwhelmingly.

“I think it would have been in the low 20s by now, just by pure dumb luck,” Ramsey said. “Would we have been at 28 now? No. Would we have done it in ’04? No.”

Ramsey as Senate Republican leader ignored a longstanding agreement between Democrats and Republicans not to target fellow members in the chamber.

“I had Republicans tell me that we had this gentlemen’s agreement that we don’t go out and campaign against incumbents,” Ramsey recalled. “I said, ‘Well that’s a great agreement if you have the majority, so I’m going out recruiting.'”

Ramsey said he knows his will be a tough act to follow, as several fellow Republicans jockey for position to take over after presumptive successor Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, steps aside.

“Over the years, because of gradually building from a minority to a majority, I think I earned respect from people that somebody who walks in isn’t going to get,” Ramsey said. “Life doesn’t work like that.”

But by having a consensus placeholder in McNally, Ramsey hopes to stave off the power vacuum.

“It will be a battle,” he said. “But I did not want that the day I go out for there to be a bloodbath.”