Setting aside the impact of personalities and local politics, insofar as that’s possible, this week’s primary elections may be seen as a Republican voter referendum on the new normal of our state’s leadership under one-party rule.
The belief that this is so is clearly illustrated by the Republican Establishment Trinity (RET) — Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — taking sides in many of the two dozen contests where incumbent Republican legislators are being challenged.
For Harwell and her chief lieutenant, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, the selection of favorites has extended beyond incumbent protection to financial contributions in a half-dozen or so open seats where there is no incumbent. And not all incumbents have received donations.
This is understandable. By somewhat reliable rumors, Harwell was elected speaker by a single vote in the House Republican Caucus after the 2010 elections over then-House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada. The actual vote is an official Republican secret.
The 24 Republicans facing challengers in the Aug. 2 primary were able to out-raise and outspend their opponents by about two to one between April 1 and June 30, according to the Tennessean. Those incumbents went into the final month of the primary campaign with nearly $1.7 million on hand, according to a Tennessean analysis of records filed this week with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance
“The incumbents have been raising money for the past year and a half, and the challengers have been raising money for the past three to six months,” said Sean Evans, a professor of political science at Union University in Jackson. “The problem for those running in the primary is their chances of winning are slim to none.”
After lifting Republicans to an overwhelming majority in 2010, tea party groups have said they expect to exert their influence in the primary by throwing out GOP incumbents who have failed to deliver on promises to advance conservative causes. But financial disclosures show their efforts have not translated into campaign cash — at least not enough to threaten sitting officeholders without the help of established donors.
Evidence of tea party efforts is most apparent in donations to Courtney Rogers, a former corporate spokeswoman and Air Force officer running for the 45th House District. Rogers brought in $38,397 in the second quarter, drawing from 39 donors around the state.
But that sum paled in comparison to the $106,380 that Rogers’ opponent, Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, brought in over the same period. The chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus tapped 197 donors, despite a Tennessee law that prevented her from raising money until May 1, when the state legislature adjourned for the year.
Donations tell only part of the tale. Maggart outspent Rogers $45,650 to $31,752, yet retained much more cash.
As of June 30, Maggart had $146,796 in the bank. Rogers had $10,229.
Something of an incumbent-challenger role reversal seems afoot this summer in the parts of Loudon and Roane counties where Republican voters will decide whether they want Julia Hurley or Kent Calfee to serve them in the state House of Representatives.
Typically in such primary contests, especially this year in Tennessee, the incumbent is being criticized by the challenger as not strong enough in pushing conservative values and perhaps as having already served too long in office. In the 32nd House District, the opposite seems the case.
Incumbent Rep. Hurley, 30, a Lenoir City resident seeking her second term, is on the attack. Challenger Calfee, 63, a former Roane County commissioner, says that he is not.
“I’m already a better legislator than my opponent. Out of 20 years on the county commission, he’s missed three years of meetings,” said Hurley. “I have a 100 percent voting record and a 100 percent attendance record.”
Further, she declares that Calfee has voted in Democratic primaries, most recently in 2008, and “financially supported Al Gore.” Calfee denied ever aiding Gore.
More is to come as the Aug. 2 primary approaches, Hurley said. Her campaign has researched his voting record on the commission and plans direct mail pieces pointing out what she perceives as shortcomings.
“Bless his heart, he’s got to an age where he’s completely forgotten what he voted for, and those things will be coming to light very soon,” she said.
Calfee says “it’s not my nature to be attacking people” and he has no plans to do so in campaigning against Hurley.
Still, he does say things such as, “I want to restore respect, dignity and professionalism to the seat.”
Andrea Zelinski has a report today on the House District 57 race in Wilson County. It seems almost an incumbent-versus-incumbent contest with the challenger, former Rep. Susan Lynn, using “re-elect Susan Lynn” yard signs. The actual incumbent, Rep. Linda Elam of Mount Juliet, can do the same, of course. “I don’t even have a logo that doesn’t say ‘Re-Elect Susan Lynn,'” said the Mt. Juliet Republican, who served four terms in the state House before launching an unsuccessful run at the Senate in 2010. Lynn says it just makes sense to try and save a few bucks by reusing signs, stickers, T-shirts, hats and other sundry political paraphernalia leftover from her House District 57 campaigns starting in 2002 and ending in 2008.
Lynn faces Linda Elam, a one-time real estate attorney, formerly the mayor of Mt. Juliet mayor and — most notably — the incumbent who enjoys the House GOP Caucus’ support going into the August 2 primary election. The winner will run unopposed in November.
Elam, who is finishing up her first term in state office, kicked off her campaign recently with an event co-sponsored by 58 fellow Republican lawmakers. The GOP establishment’s endorsement, Elam says, represents a clear and “dramatic” message to voters signaling which candidate has proven she can “work well with their colleagues, get things accomplished and work on behalf of the people rather than their own interest.”
The race is one of several that political insiders are following closely. The race will also test the electoral clout of the business-friendly caucus leaders as they try to protect Tennessee incumbents from constitution-focused Tea Party conservative challengers.
“While Susan Lynn is one of my very best friends I’ve ever had, I know that my job as leader, when I was elected by the caucus, is to help the incumbents. It’s not a comfortable thing for me at all,” said House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, who was known to socialize with Lynn when they served as seat-mates in the Legislature together. “I know Susan would understand if she was in the caucus still. She would expect me to support her just as we are doing with Linda Elam.”
Aside from calling themselves Mt. Juliet conservatives seeking “re-election,” Elam and Lynn offer voters significant differences in style and background.
Lynn won her first House election in 2002, in the aftermath of the state income tax battles in the Legislature. She made a name for herself championing limited-government constitutionalism and state sovereignty issues. Some of her most well-known bills sought to restrict the effect of Obamacare on Tennesseans, ban the government from implanting microchips in individuals against a person’s will, and requiring those on public assistance to submit to random drug tests, a measure which won approval in a different fashion this year.
…”Some people would prefer to get in front of TV cameras and go wave signs and make wild accusations and things like that rather than the hard work it takes to be a responsible legislator,” Elam said.
Elam points out that she brings a “professional, level-headed, hard-working, sensible, collegial work environment to the Capitol,” painting Lynn as something of a drama queen.
“I think that’s absolutely foolish,” said Lynn.
Republican domination of the state Legislature and the redistricting plans enacted earlier this year have apparently combined with intra-party philosophical and personal disputes to produce an unprecedented surge in challenges to incumbent state legislators this summer.
Twenty-three incumbent Republican legislators face opposition in the Aug. 2 primary election. That compares to just five primary challenges to GOP incumbents in both 2010 and 2008.
On the Democratic side, seven incumbents face primary challengers this year compared to just three in 2010 and five in 2008 primaries.
The upsurge in Democrat primary contests may be attributed directly to the Republican-controlled redistricting, which is forcing Democratic incumbents to run against one another in the three House districts and one Senate district. Setting aside those four incumbent-versus-incumbent races, only three sitting Democratic legislators have primary challenges on Aug. 2.
Redistricting appears to have had a less direct impact on the surge in challenges to Republican incumbents. In several cases, a redrawing of district lines has left incumbents with new constituents, perhaps making them appear more vulnerable.
Tennessee Republicans are looking to tighten their grip on state government in the Nov. 6 general election by winning an even larger legislative majority than they’ve enjoyed the last two years. But TNReport reports that party leaders, particularly in the House, say a first priority is to ensure that members of their caucus survive challenges in the Aug. 2 primary. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart both say incumbents winning primaries is a prime concern. In McCormick’s words, incumbents deserve to be “rewarded on election day” for responsibly governing since they began dominating state politics two years ago.
“Certainly, we want our incumbents to win,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “We think everyone, or close to everyone, is going to win. And then we feel like we can pick some seats up this November as a result of our staying focused on the issues voters care about.”
…”My job is to bring the incumbents back,” Maggart told TNReport. “That’s our job — my job — as the caucus leader.”
But while GOP legislative leaders say they see it as their rightful role to protect the already-in crowd, some prominent outsiders who speak for constituencies typically seen as leaning Republican argue that in reality, principles ought to take precedence over the power of incumbency.
The automatic impulse to protect incumbents is rarely the answer — and more often likely part of the problem, argues Ben Cunningham, spokesman of Tennessee Tax Revolt and a founder of the Nashville Tea Party.
“People tend to stay in office far too long and have a sense of entitlement about being re-elected, and that tends to be reinforced by the reality,” Cunningham told TNReport this week.
He said anytime voters can get candidate variety and real ballot-booth choices, it is rarely a bad thing.
“I think that’s one thing most Tea Party people have in common — that we tend to be skeptical of the sense of entitlement that comes with long-term incumbency,” Cunningham said. “I simply don’t feel any loyalty to someone because they’re an incumbent.”
The Republican state House redistricting plan unveiled today is designed to end the careers of at least six incumbent Democratic representatives while creating six new districts with no incumbent.
Legislation implementing the new House plan was given initial approval by a House subcommittee on Wednesday over Democratic objections within hours after being formally recommended by an all-Republican committee. Plans call for enacting it into law next week.
Redistricting plans for the state’s nine U.S. House seats remained under wraps, though House Speaker Beth Harwell said she anticipates unveiling of a congressional plan before the end of this week.
In the state House, eight current Democratic incumbents are paired in four news districts by the Republican plan, apparently assuring that at least four of the Democrats will lose in running against a fellow Democrat or abandon their seat to avoid such a contest.
The paired Democrats are Reps. Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart in Nashville, Reps. Antonio Parkinson and Jeannie Richardson in Memphis, Reps. Barbara Cooper and G.A. Hardaway in Memphis; and Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnn Favors in Chattanooga.
In two other redesigned seats, an incumbent Democrat will be in the same district with an incumbent Republican. Harwell said she believes the new districts are aligned so that the Republicans, Reps. Jim Cobb of Spring City and Vance Dennis of Savannah, will prevail over the Democrats, Reps. Bill Harmon of Dunlap and Eddie Bass of Prospect.
The Cobb-Harmon pairing is in District 31, which would include a part of western Roane County along with all of Rhea, Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties.
There will be six districts without an incumbent representative under the plan. The most striking in geographic alignment is new District 92, which encompasses all of Marshall County in Middle Tennessee, then runs along the Alabama border to Marion County in East Tennessee – including parts of Lincoln and Franklin counties along the way.
Other new districts created without an incumbent are in Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Rutherford and Williamson counties.
The new and open Knox County seat, as reported earlier, is in the northwest part of the county and includes the Karnes and Hardin Valley areas. It is designated as District 89 in the plan, a number previously assigned to a Shelby County seat.
The new Davidson County seat, including a part of Nashville, is deemed a “coalition district” where black and Hispanic voters combined would constitute a majority of the population. Republicans said it is the first such district created in Tennessee and provides minorities an opportunity for added representation in the Legislature.
State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester, who watched the proceedings Wednesday, said the “coalition district” does not have any legal standing under voting rights laws and does not offset apparent minority losses elsewhere. In two of the paired incumbent districts – Cooper-Hardaway and Brown-Favors — black Democrats will be running against one another. In another, black Democrat Parkinson is paired with white Democrat Richardson.
The redistricting plan is based on 2010 U.S. Census data, which showed Tennessee’s population overall grew by 11.5 percent to 6,346,105. Ideally, each of the 99 House districts would have a population of 64,105.
Under the Republican plan, the highest population in a district is 67,297 in a Hamilton County district while the lowest population is 61,052 in a Williamson County district.
Court decisions have held that population variance can be no more than 10 percent from highest to lowest district. The Republican plan has a variance of 9.74 percent.
‘It is fair and certainly has less gerrymandering than the way the districts are currently drawn,” said Harwell.
The state constitution prohibits splitting counties in legislative districts, but courts have ruled that prohibition is overridden by the need for equal representation under the “one person, one vote” principle. The new plan splits 29 counties.