In the next session of the state Legislature, there could be three political parties: the Democrats, the traditional Republicans, and a group of ultra-conservative members that can be grouped under the rubric of the Tea Party.
Not that there isn’t a lot of overlap among Republican members, depending on the issue.
In 2010, the Democrats lost 714 positions nationwide—governorships, state legislators and members of Congress. This fall, in Tennessee, it won’t get any better for the Democrats.
Republicans are expected to pick up even more House and Senate seats, most likely they will have enough Republicans for a two-thirds majority in the House. That means they wouldn’t even need Democrats for a quorum and they can squelch any parliamentary maneuvers and can ram through any legislation they please.
That may not be a good thing. The new one-party rule of Republicans is unlike the one-party rule enjoyed by the Democrats for decades. The Democrats’ power in the House rested on a coalition between urban blacks and rural West Tennessee whites. In order to keep control, it was necessary for the House Democrats to be a tightly disciplined group. It was also necessary for conservative Democrats to reach out to conservative Republicans at times and form coalitions on a specific bill.
The Republicans, long in the minority and not having the power to govern, have several members who are used to being free agents. They have never had to be a disciplined group. It is also in the nature of conservative Republicans to resist authority. As former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker once observed, it’s like herding cats.
Seven incumbent Republicans were defeated in their primaries. House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny has said he may challenge Speaker Beth Harwell. There will be a bitter battle to pick a new House Caucus chair, since Debra Maggart was defeated.
Holding together all the different factions within the Republican Party will be a difficult job. In addition to the usual special interests represented by lobbyists, there is now the added pressure of the Tea Party groups who will be demanding ideological purity from House members. The pressures from all sides and the natural inclination of conservative Republicans to go their own way could split the House Republicans.
The big issue, of course, will be the return of the NRA bill that allows employees to have guns in their vehicles at work, preventing employers from banning guns from the workplace. Business groups and the Farm Bureau argue the bill infringes on the property rights of business and farm owners. The NRA argues the Second Amendment trumps property rights.
It will split the caucus and likely dominate the agenda and the coverage of next session.
In the last election, the NRA downgraded the ratings of any member who disagreed with them on the issue, a lot of A ratings went to C. They also spent money against incumbent legislators who are members of the NRA, an action unprecedented in Tennessee.
During the last two years the Republicans passed a passel of gun bills, eliminated the inheritance tax, eliminated the gift tax, cut the sales tax on food, and cut the state budget. They also passed a state constitutional amendment narrowing abortion rights.
I wonder what the Republicans would have to do to make the right wing happy. I used to think that the House Republican caucus was the right wing of the Republican Party.
When the Democrats practiced one-party rule, the Black Caucus was a reliable voting bloc that negotiated with the rural Democrats in order to get things for their urban districts. We may see the formation of a Tea Party Caucus that sets up as a separate entity in the House and performs a similar role for the Republicans.
But it won’t be about projects and patronage, it will be about ideology.
The state’s business community may grow to miss the Democrats.