Next year Tennessee Republicans have a chance to do something they've never done—at least not without the help of Yankee troops. If they hold or increase their margins in the House and Senate and pick up the governor's office, they will be in total control of state government.
The question before the party is whether they can set aside a feud and unite for the election or whether they will continue to bicker and try and throw people out of the party. Because next year's elections have already begun and the party has still not reconciled the deep split in the House. State Rep. Curt Cobb, a Democrat, has resigned his seat and a special election is under way in Shelbyville. The Republicans need to pick up this seat in an off-year election as a buffer for their thin one-vote majority in the House.
It would be very helpful for the Republicans to have the speaker of the House helping their nominee win the seat—with fund-raising and with campaigning. But the party's official position remains that the "Carter County Republican" Kent Williams is not a member of the party. This special election is a microcosm of next year, when all House seats will be on the ballot. Will the party use Williams for fund-raising and for campaigning to keep seats and pick up additional ones? If they don't, it's like playing a game of chess and leaving your queen off the board. In chess, the technical term for this is "stupid."
It is completely understandable for members of the Republican executive committee to still be upset with Williams. Williams' sin was getting himself elected Speaker in place of Majority Leader Jason Mumpower with Democratic votes. Former Republican Party chair Robin Smith has decreed that Williams can't run for reelection as a Republican.
But one would hope these party activists, who care enough about the party to perform the thankless job of serving, would step back a minute and reconsider.
If Williams is not a Republican and is forced to run for reelection as an independent, it will be impossible for him to raise money and campaign for Republican candidates. He got elected speaker with Democratic votes. Why should he anger the Democrats by campaigning for Republicans if the Republicans have thrown him out of the party?
I cannot recall anyone suggesting throwing former Congressman Jimmy Quillen out of the party when he used his influence and organization in East Tennessee to elect Democrat Ned McWherter governor over Republican Winfield Dunn. No one is suggesting throwing Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey out of the party—even though when he was in the House he voted for Democrat Jimmy Naifeh for speaker. (The majority of the Republican members of the House with any length of service voted for Naifeh at some point.) Who wants to throw out Ramsey and most of the other Republican senators because they voted for Democrat John Wilder for Senate speaker?
Does the party plan to throw all Republican candidates off the ballot next year if they've voted in a Democratic primary?
Given that the state party is broke (though the Statesman's Dinner raised a good bit), are they really going to recruit a candidate and spend money to try and defeat Williams in Carter County? First of all, it's futile. People there are going to rally around the local guy over some Nashville-directed upset effort. Secondly, the money could be used to try and pick up another Republican seat some place or save one that's in danger. It is irresponsible to spend Republican party resources to try and defeat a Republican Speaker of the House instead of welcoming him into the fold and using him in other campaigns.
Leaders of the party, big contributors, influential executive committee members, and the Republican gubernatorial candidates need to work with party chair Chris Devaney to normalize Williams' status.
The Republicans are poised for an historic sweep next year. But this issue needs to be resolved now.