As an aging politician remarked recently, Tennessee is arguably no longer a two-party state in its politics — it’s a two-and-a-half-party state.
Under this view, two of the parties call themselves Republicans and, jointly under that label, they hold a supermajority in the state Legislature, all offices elected on a statewide basis and seven of nine congressional seats. Democrats constitute the half party.
This is a close to a mirror image of bygone days when politicians who called themselves Democrats ruled the Tennessee political roost and often split into two competing factions, sometimes with sub-factions. Every now and then, the half-a-party Republicans got to weigh in and decide disputes between the factions.
Perhaps more than today’s two main Republican factions, the old Democratic differences tended to involve personalities, for example, Ed “Boss” Crump of Memphis versus Estes Kefauver, to go back a few decades. But the current intra-GOP rivalry also seems to increasingly have prominent personalities on display when there are differences of opinion.
For purposes of discussion, if not exaggeration, consider some developments in the past few days that suggest that Gov. Bill Haslam is the leader of one GOP party while Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey leads the other. House Speaker Beth Harwell, meanwhile, floats back and forth, sometimes resolving a dispute.
Some recent situations:
–In what some called a gunfight at the state Capitol corral, Ramsey launched an effort to allow handgun permit holders to pack their pistols in the buildings where legislators meet and other officials, including the governor, have their offices. Haslam said no. Harwell, after initially backing Ramsey, shifted to the Haslam side. Result: a victory for the governor’s faction and, maybe, for the half-party Democrats, who had loudly raged against the proposition.
–Ramsey spearheaded a resolution directing the attorney general to file a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement within Tennessee borders. With one exception each, the supermajority Republican senators all quickly voted to approve the idea, while superminority Democrats voted no. Haslam demurred, saying, among other things, that the feds were providing ample information on refugees — something that Senate Republicans repeatedly said during debate they were not doing. That situation may indicate that the two factions sometimes don’t even talk to each other these days.
Harwell, meanwhile, got caught in a curious sideshow. Breitbart News, an online political news service with a generally ultra-conservative viewpoint, reported that Harwell was “surreptitiously” collaborating with Haslam to derail the resolution in the House — linking this to Haslam’s support, at the time unannounced, for Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential campaign. The report, mostly quoting anonymous sources and perhaps indicating a lack of knowledge of House procedural rules, was debunked by a spokeswoman for the House speaker: Harwell actually supports the resolution and has never spoken to Haslam about it. This may be another indication of failure in GOP leadership communication.
–Speaking of the presidential campaign, Haslam’s belated blessing of Rubio — after withdrawal from the race of Jeb Bush, openly supported by others in the Haslam family — shows the Tennessee GOP factions reflect national divisions. Ramsey says Donald Trump will win the race, perhaps reflecting his personal preference, though he coyly declines to say so. Harwell just keeps quiet, declining to confirm or deny anonymous sources contending she’s a surreptitious Rubio backer.
The Republican divisions have been on display otherwise this year in situations too numerous to list here. The most attention-getting example was the school voucher bill, approved by Senate Republicans in lock-step fashion with Ramsey, but failing in the House where one faction of supermajority Republicans aligned with opposing superminority Democrats. Some voucher advocates complain that Harwell and Haslam were only lukewarm in backing the proposal.
Ergo, the two-party system is alive and well in Tennessee as long as you don’t pay attention to the labels they use, and maybe is even evolving into a three-party system.