Sunday column: On the primary muddle in legislative campaigns

As campaigns for state legislative seats develop, the themes that will be in play for the handful of November general election contests are pretty clear while the candidate contrasts in the August primary are more difficult to decipher, though arguably far more important from a statewide policy perspective.

Under Republican-engineered redistricting and the Tennessee electorate’s prevailing political mood, there’s no chance that Democrats, as a matter of practical politics, can end the Republican Supermajority reign for the 110th General Assembly that convenes in January, even though Democrats “came out of the woodwork” – to use Democratic Chair Mary Mancini’s phrase – to qualify as underdog challengers in 40 or so seats now held by Republicans.

That’s about twice as many Democrats seeking Republican-held seats as compared to a couple of years ago. The reason? To speculate at bit, it appears that Democrats at the local level are inspired by both irritation and perceived opportunity.

The irritation, apparently held individually by most candidates, is unhappiness with some Supermajority actions. The opportunity is a perception that voters overall are irritated as well, as indicated in polls on matters such as Insure Tennessee, while Republicans are themselves divided on these matters and on the notion of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States.

So some inspired and opportunistic Democrats are ready to run, mostly as political novices hoping to beat the odds dictated by incumbency, an overwhelming money advantage and districts crafted by professionals to assure that – with a handful of unavoidable exceptions in carving up the state as a whole – the seat will be held by one party or the other, mostly by Republicans.
One of those arguable exceptions is Senate District 10, where three Democrats are competing for the party nomination to oppose incumbent Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga.

As reported by the Times-Free Press last week, Gardenhire – unopposed for the GOP nomination – opened combat last week by generically denouncing all three Democrats for their silence on a directive from the Obama administration on transgender restrooms. He stands against transgender use of restrooms, the incumbent said, while the Democrats are afraid to oppose creation of a “legal loophole for sexual predators.” The Democrats responded, more or less, by saying that’s pretty irrelevant and by uniformly attacking Gardenhire for voting against Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, which they consider relevant.

Ergo, a general election issue line is fairly clearly drawn on whether voters think it’s more important to fight Obama on a bathroom directive or expand Medicaid coverage. Lots of other things will be in play but, given that Gardenhire is a pretty ardent conservative, the issue lines will likely be clear on many of those as well. The same could be said in Knox County’s only seat that can be considered somewhat competitive on a partisan basis – House District 13 where there’s a rematch between former Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson and the Republican who barely beat her in 2014, Rep. Eddie Smith.

From a statewide perspective, though, such races are somewhat inconsequential. Far more Supermajority incumbents are at serious risk in the August primaries than in the general election. That’s where the action is and political operatives are hard at work with issues only a vague part of the picture.

As a general principle, it’s safe to say that GOP primary competition is over who is the most conservative in supporting God, guns and traditional family values and opposing anything proposed by Obama. A Knoxville example is the House District 18 GOP primary pitting Rep. Martin Daniel against a trio of opponents, including former Rep. Steve Hall, who he defeated in 2014.
That leaves candidates to get into personalities, rely on money to get their message out and to critique opponents on nuanced notions – rather like things were in general elections of the old days when Republicans, using a shift in prevailing Tennessee voter inclinations, overcame Democrat-engineered redistricting to achieve Supermajority status.

It’s tempting – but very difficult – to characterize many of the GOP candidates into conservative versus moderate camps within the Supermajority. Or maybe those backing pragmatic moderate Haslam versus those who think the governor is insufficiently right wing or, at best, a political wimp.

In the primaries, candidates are mostly prone to muddy those waters, voicing general respect for a governor with high popularity ratings while voicing disrespect for his embrace of Obamacare, as Insure Tennessee was uniformly portrayed by critics. Polls show most GOP voters loath Obamacare, though inclined to support Insure Tennessee.

A task force created by House Speaker Beth Harwell, who faces an underdog Democrat in her own reelection campaign, is studying this matter in search of a muddled compromise. And that will probably work in GOP primaries — maybe in the general election, too.

Note: This is the unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.