When you are in the minority for decades you get used to constant battle, staying sharp by being in attack mode. When you don’t have the votes you have to engage in debate, using overheated rhetoric to bash your opponents, being outrageous to attract media attention to your cause.
That makes it hard to accept the fact that you’ve won. When your political method has always been to identify enemies and attack them, what do you do when you have roundly defeated them?
Well, you find new enemies.
State Republicans are now in possession of the governor’s office, the state Senate, and the state House. Instead of being thrilled, however, conservative Republicans are fighting on. Even though Republicans have won, many conservatives believe they aren’t the right kind of Republicans.
It is conventional wisdom in Tennessee that a third of the voters are Republicans, a third are Democrats, and a third are independents. The problem seems to be that the third of Tennessee voters who are independents decided to vote with the Republicans in the last election. Instead of being thrilled about winning the hearts and minds of independent voters, however, some conservative Republicans are angry that the independent voters did not pick their candidates.
The state Republican Party executive committee has considered and put off for two months a vote on whether to close Republican primaries and restrict those who vote in them to people who “register” as a Republican. It would ask the Legislature to require party registration and deny primary votes to people not “registered” with the party.
Tennessee does not have party registration. You can vote in any primary you please. This is primarily because many counties in the state are one-party counties. If, for instance, you are a Democrat living in Knox County and you want some say in who holds office down at the courthouse, you have to vote in a Republican primary. Last year, many Democrats voted in the Republican primary for eventual County Mayor Tim Burchett in order to prevent the election of former Sheriff Tim Hutchison.
In rural West Tennessee, courthouse offices are traditionally filled by Democrats, and Republicans there vote for the most conservative Democrat in the primary.
In statewide races, conservative senate candidates Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary together got more votes than the more moderate Bob Corker in the U.S. Senate primary in 2008. But Corker got a plurality and went to the Senate. In the recent gubernatorial primary, conservatives Ron Ramsey and Zach Wamp together got slightly more votes than Bill Haslam. Haslam had a large plurality, at 48 percent, and was clearly the preferred choice. But it can be argued that most voters in the primary preferred a more conservative candidate.
In Tennessee, there has always been tension between “movement” conservatives in the Republican Party and traditional Republicans—call them legacy Republicans in places like East Tennessee, where you vote Republican because your parents and grandparents voted Republican. Some of the political divisions go back to 1980 when the Republican establishment supported favorite son Howard Baker for president and movement conservatives supported Ronald Reagan.
As Republicans have moved to take complete control of state government they could be viewed as now being a “big tent” party in the way that Reagan attracted conservative Democrats to his banner.
Many conservatives consider Corker, Lamar Alexander, and Bill Haslam to be RINOs—Republicans in Name Only. And expected new House Speaker Beth Harwell. They argue that if you aren’t with conservatives on every issue then you are no better than a Democrat, so why should you get their support?
Republican partial control of the state House the last two sessions, under independent Speaker Kent Williams, passed a Republican agenda that had been bottled up in committees for years. They passed Republican gun bills, abortion bills, and killed all efforts to raise taxes. Republicans will be in complete control next session and will be able to redraw state and federal districts.
But the fight goes on. On the brink of being the majority party, some Republicans are hell bent on returning to the minority by forbidding independents from voting for Republicans