By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, it’s a happy coincidence that he can give a boost to embattled legislative incumbents while traveling the state to hand out community grant checks.
Haslam is spending the week traveling to the districts of several Republican state lawmakers facing tough primary fights. They include Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville and Reps. Tim Wirgau of Buchanan, Jimmy Eldridge of Jackson and Gary Hicks of Rogersville.
“We obviously like to help our friends, but at the end of the day this is about communities that have made great grant applications,” Haslam said. “In the process, if we get to help a few people who have been our friends, that’s OK, too.”
Haslam also brushed off questions about whether he would ultimately endorse Donald Trump for president, saying his attention is directed toward winning legislative races.
“My focus is going to be on helping people like Tim Wirgau to be elected,” he said. “It matters a lot more to Tim’s election than it does to Trump’s election what I do.”
Haslam laughed off suggestions that he is among the last prominent Tennessee politicians who hasn’t endorsed a presidential candidate after former Vice President Al Gore finally endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton on the eve of her nomination at the convention this week.
“It’s not like I’m not for the Republican ticket, I’ve supported the Republican ticket my whole life,” Haslam said. “It’s just, where am I going to put my efforts and time? It’s going to be into helping good people like Tim get re-elected.”
The governor said it’s unclear what effect Trump’s nomination will have on legislative races.
“There’s a general frustration about what’s happening in Washington that some people might translate to local government,” Haslam said. “But at the end of the day, most people look at local and state governments and say they’re actually making things happen.”
Haslam has drawn the ire of some conservative lawmakers in the past for what they perceived as his support of their challengers. Republican Rep. Rick Womick of Murfreesboro, who isn’t seeking election this year, labeled Haslam a “traitor to the party” after the governor’s allies formed a political action committee to support opponents of his harshest GOP critics.
Haslam, who is among the country’s wealthiest politicians, has ruled out major personal financial contributions to help sway races. And he’s sure to steer clear of one Republican incumbent, embattled Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Williamson, who has suspended his campaign in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. But Durham has refused calls by Haslam and others to resign, and remains on the ballot.
Wirgau, who is being challenged by retired Navy captain and businessman Jim Poe in the 7th House District, took the opportunity at an event with the governor in Camden on Tuesday to tout his results-oriented credentials to land state grants for his community.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric and talk out the about the establishment,” Wirgau said. “I remind people that this isn’t Washington, D.C. — this is Tennessee. And in Tennessee we don’t have establishments, we have teams.”
But Wirgau acknowledged that the national anti-incumbent trend could affect races across the state, but that visits from the popular Republican governor could help remind people of legislative successes at the state Capitol.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he said.