For the last 25 years (call it the Dark Ages for Tennessee Republicans) the Democrats controlled both the state House and Senate and the governor's office for 16 of those years. During that time, shut out of real power, there arose a conservative Republican infrastructure that sought influence by other means.
Conservative talk radio took off in Nashville, with hosts sending horn honkers to circle the Capitol to protest a vote on a state income tax. Gun owners formed lobbying groups to join the NRA to push expansion of gun rights. Family values groups organized to push social legislation, especially a constitutional amendment to rein in a state Supreme Court decision that gives Tennessee women abortion rights beyond the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions.
Then in the past few years the Republicans took over both houses of the Legislature.
What do you do when you win? Have a party and go home? Not when you have an infrastructure in place with members, contributors, and jobs on the line. And a radio show that depends on outrage to keep listeners.
The Republicans passed a raft of gun bills as soon as they got a majority, an entire session known as the Year of the Gun. The Republicans and conservative Democrats have a constitutional amendment ready for the ballot in the next gubernatorial race to restrict abortion rights. This session saw the repeal of the inheritance tax and the gift tax and a reduction in the sales tax on groceries.
So is there rejoicing in the streets?
Not if your issue is propelled by frustration and anger. But how to gin up frustration and anger when you have control of the Legislature and your agenda is being passed?
Well, you think of something.
You attack the non-existent problem of elementary school teachers teaching homosexual sex. You try and regulate the student handbook at a private university (Vanderbilt) because they are discriminating against Christians. You argue that an anti-bullying law that prevents students calling a gay classmate names is restricting free speech.
You come up with a gun bill that tells property owners they don't have the right to regulate firearms on their property and then go berserk when it isn't passed.
You run candidates against conservative Republicans in their primary.
I find it amusing that someone like state Rep. Debra Maggart, chair of the Republican Caucus, is being attacked for not being conservative enough. Maggart is to the right of Attila the Hun.
Let's examine the gun bill that has the NRA trying to defeat incumbent Tennessee legislators in a primary, a first for that organization.
If you were to look into the glove boxes of all the cars and pickups parked at the Volkswagen, Nissan, and Denso plants, you would find enough guns to equip a Third World country. But can you imagine the shade of green corporate lawyers would turn if management asked them to develop a policy on employee possession of handguns in the parking lot?
Companies can't afford to give permission to carry guns onto their property for liability reasons. But they don't want the bad blood it would engender if they cracked down on the practice. It is a case where Don't Ask, Don't Tell works.
If the Legislature passes a law that says property owners can't regulate the possession of guns on their property, where does it end? Can you stop people from bringing guns onto your farm? Your car dealership?
We have reached a point where the people who see guns as a tool for hunting, protection, or target shooting are being superseded by people who have a gun fetish. A gun is no longer a tool; it has become a symbol, a talisman, and a political statement.
It is ironic that the General Assembly is more receptive to conservative legislation now than at any time in decades and 23 of them are being vilified and challenged in primaries.
The conservative groups and the gun lobbyists will be back with more legislation in the future to push the envelope. This election will be about whether they can beat some incumbents and put a scare into the rest. If they can't, legislators can breathe a little easier.