There isn’t a lot of drama or interest in today’s election in Knox County, but this off-year contest has major implications for all of us. Here are some highlights to watch for if you are a political junkie and can tear yourself away from Olympic coverage.
• The National Rifle Association has gone all-in with a bid to take over and run the state House of Representatives. Not only have they campaigned against some incumbents, they have sent a questionnaire out to the candidates asking them point blank: If it comes to a showdown next year on an NRA bill, will you side with them or “the House leadership”? It is an extraordinarily bold move for a lobbying organization to demand loyalty from House members over their own party caucus and the Speaker of the House. They didn’t do it when Democratic Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh kept their gun bills bottled up in committees for years on end. The Republicans, by contrast, have passed a passel of gun bills in the last three years, and the NRA has chosen to attack one of the most gun-friendly legislatures in the country.
The NRA has put an estimated $100,000 into a campaign against state Rep. Debra Maggart, the Republican caucus chair. Maggart was chosen because she is the only person in leadership who has an opponent. Maggart has voted for every gun bill that has come to a vote and has had an A-plus rating with the NRA. They have cut her rating to a D because the House postponed the NRA’s Guns in Parking Lots bill until next year and didn’t vote on it.
If the NRA defeats Maggart and some other members they have targeted, one of two things will happen. The members will bow down to the NRA lobbyists, shaking in their boots, and do what they are told. Or, they will be so angry at the tactics used against one of their own that they may revolt. Given that none of them wants $100,000 spent in a race against them in two years, I suspect it will be the former.
If the NRA loses this fight, they will have had their influence in the House lessened. They will have a lot of angry legislators to deal with and they will have earned the enmity of the House leadership and Gov. Bill Haslam, who has campaigned for Maggart.
The NRA has put all its chips on the table. Today decides who wins the pot.
• A little-noticed but important Republican primary race is going on over in Middle Tennessee. Congresswoman Diane Black, completing her first term in office, is again facing Lou Ann Zelenick, a woman she narrowly defeated two years ago. National conservative blogs, like Red State, have been wearing Black out for not having been conservative enough and are urging her defeat. It is not unheard of, but it would certainly be unusual for an incumbent member of Congress in Tennessee to be defeated. It may indicate that incumbency is no longer a safeguard for members of Congress. (Scott DesJarlais defeated Lincoln Davis two years ago. A trend?)
Closer to home, the district that stretches from Chattanooga to Oak Ridge and points north has incumbent Chuck Fleischmann in a dogfight with two opponents. Given that he has money and has his anti- vote split between two candidates, you would think Fleischmann would have the edge. But if he loses it will send chills down the spine of incumbent congressmen everywhere.
If Black and Fleischmann lose for not being conservative enough, it will send a message to the U.S. House Republican caucus to not even consider compromise.
• One local race of interest is the new House seat in northwest Knox. While all the attention was being paid to Democrat Sherry Breeding’s failed attempt to get on the ballot, I’m told that former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison took the opportunity to stay under the radar and start working door to door. He has worked more than 60 subdivisions and, given his name recognition, he seems favored. If Hutch wins it may mean the ghost of Black Wednesday is finally banished.