House Republican Efforts Risk Alienating Core Supporters

It may be an easy shot, but maybe you should pick a better target

I have the mental image of state House Republican leaders sitting with their feet up on their desks, using a pistol to take target practice on their toes. Their latest attempt to shoot themselves in the foot is to chastise one of the most reliable interest groups in the Republican coalition going into the critical 2010 elections.

What's next? A circular firing squad?

Upset because Tennessee Right to Life endorsed the Democrat in a special election down in Shelbyville, House Majority Leader Jason Mumpower and Caucus Chair Glen Casada circulated an e-mail letter to Republican House members giving them until end of business Tuesday to sign on with them to express their displeasure. The letter reminds the anti-abortion group that Democratic control of the House frustrated their agenda for years and only a Republican majority can accomplish their aims.

Efforts to place an anti-abortion constitutional amendment on the ballot were frustrated as long as House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and the Democrats controlled the House. With a Republican majority, SJR 127 passed this last session, is likely to pass next session and go to a statewide ballot. A constitutional amendment must pass two sessions of the Legislature, first by a majority and then by a two-thirds majority.

It is a cogent argument. But is it smart politics?

Strong Right to Life House members, like state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, took exception to the party telling the group how to conduct their business. Dunn asked if they planned to send a letter to the NRA because they have endorsed Democrats.

House Speaker Kent Williams issued a statement opposing the letter, saying interest groups make endorsement decisions on behalf of their members and it is not the party's place to tell them what they ought to do. He also criticized the Mumpower/Casada letter as shortsighted. He said the SJR 127 constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote this next session, which is 66 House votes. That means it will require Democratic votes in order to pass. To suggest that Tennessee Right to Life only support Republicans and not support pro-life Democrats is just not smart.

Meanwhile, Williams had a fund-raiser for Republican candidates in Knoxville over the weekend, co-hosted by a majority of the Republican caucus. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander came by and addressed the group. Their presence and conciliatory language left little doubt that they think the party should reinstate Williams. You will recall that the state Republican Party, under Robin Smith, threw the Speaker of the House out of the party and, at present, will require him to run for re-election to his House seat as an independent. This, while Williams is raising money to help increase the Republican majority in the state House.

Mumpower and Casada are the principle opponents to allowing Williams back in the party. If they can marginalize him, they see Republican gains in the House next year putting them in power and Mumpower in the Speaker's chair—the chair Williams pulled out from under him last January with Democratic votes.

Mumpower's Right to Life letter has angered some of the hardcore conservatives, the small group of House members that remain Mumpower's base of support. The effort may have been instigated by Republican House members who are facing shaky re-election campaigns, afraid a Right to Life endorsement for their opponent might finish them off.

One-issue groups, like Right to Life and the NRA, are often faced with two candidates who are equally good on their issue. They often endorse the candidate they think has the best chance of winning. Wouldn't you?

The state Republican executive committee meets Dec. 5. They could rescind Williams' ouster and let him run as a Republican. Or they can leave it as is. They can side with gubernatorial candidates, U.S. Senators, and a majority of the House Republican caucus and let Williams back in. Or they can side with Robin Smith, who is no longer at the party, and the Keystone Kops who continue toe target practice.