For more than a year, Gov. Bill Haslam has been telling supporters of his failed Insure Tennessee plan that he sees no reason to try again for passage until there’s something to indicate a change in political attitudes toward what critics branded “Obamacare expansion.”
Arguably, some results in the Aug. 4 Republican primary elections are at least a harbinger of change in legislator attitudes, which can be influenced by voter attitudes.
For starters, the most prominent legislative critics of the Haslam plan — Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown — were both big losers in primary campaigns. They were the House and Senate sponsors, respectively, of a bill they and Americans for Prosperity branded as the “Stop Obamacare Act.” Both had made their efforts major talking points on the campaign trail.
Durham’s landslide loss to challenger Sam Whitson, of course, surely had little or nothing to do with his rhetoric against Haslam’s modified Medicaid expansion plans. Durham had suspended his campaign and his rhetoric before the election after a state attorney general’s report blistered him for inappropriate “sexual interactions” with 22 women — interns, legislative staffers and lobbyists. Still, the Durham debacle has to be a bit embarrassing for the anti-Insure Tennessee crowd.
Kelsey, who wasn’t up for re-election to his Senate seat this year, instead launched an intense campaign for the 8th Congressional District seat immediately after incumbent U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher announced he would not seek re-election. Kelsey finished fourth with just 13 percent of the vote after spending more money than any of the 13 candidates excepting multi-millionaire George Flinn, who self-funded a $2 million campaign. Flinn finished second behind the winner, former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff, who got 27.5 percent of the vote after spending about $500,000, or about $100,000 less than Kelsey, according to most recent disclosures.
In East Tennessee, meanwhile, Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, came under attack from Americans for Prosperity because of his support for Insure Tennessee.
Indeed, he was sponsor of the proposal after Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the fellow who usually sponsors legislation pushed by the governor, bailed out on Haslam and opposed the bill. His challenger, Scott Williams, echoed the AFP opposition to “Obamacare expansion.” Overbey won with 61 percent of the vote.
Given that Overbey is an established incumbent who dramatically outspent Williams, one can’t really claim the voting was a referendum on Insure Tennessee.
But it should be noted that AFP says activists knocked on 5,000 doors in the district, not to mention an advertising onslaught that focused on the issue with substantial undisclosed spending. And Overbey got 61 percent of the vote.
In West Tennessee’s Senate District 26, incumbent Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, was attacked in a radio ad that noted three hospitals had closed in the eight-county rural district while the incumbent did nothing and contrasted this with Gresham’s vote to build a “$100 million political Taj Mahal” — the latter a reference to the price tag for renovation of the old Cordell Hull building on the state’s Capitol Hill that will become the Legislature’s new home in 2017. The hospital closings were a reference to Gresham’s opposition to Insure Tennessee, which proponents contend could save rural hospitals from bankruptcy.
John Rowley, a Nashville political operative who wrote the ad, says a poll showed Gresham’s primary challenger, Savannah Mayor Bob Shutt, down 29 points before the ad ran. On election night Gresham won by a much smaller margin, 53 percent to 47 percent. Rowley says this is part of a pattern showing “the Insure Tennessee worm has turned” to end the “myth” that supporting it means death at the polls.
Maybe so. House Speaker Beth Harwell’s push to find an alternative to it shows a recognition that doing nothing on the health care insurance front is not a politically popular position.
The suspicion here, though, is that Haslam will need some more reassurance before trying again. Perhaps a surprise defeat in November of an anti-Insure Tennessee Republican or two by Democrats — pretty much all supporters of the governor on that issue — would do that.
Note: This is a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, also available HERE.