Grand Old Party Pains: Small Election at the West Knox Republican Club Escalates Into Battle Over Party's Direction

Who knew that electing a vice chair of the largest Republican club in Knox County could get so many GOP shorts in a wad? But evidently there was something more at stake than this not exactly lofty position.

Things got ugly fast at the February meeting of the West Knox Republican Club when a bunch of College Republicans showed up at the Red Lobster, joined the club, paid their first-time dues, and were poised to vote in one of their own—third-year law student Alexander Waters. Former club president Gary Loe was the other candidate. After much protest, the club voted 59-19 to allow the newbies to vote—a vote which actually included the newbies, who unsurprisingly opted to allow themselves to vote. Loe, seeing the handwriting on the wall, withdrew. Then someone nominated state committeewoman and official Tea Party representative Sally Absher.

Waters won—with, coincidentally enough, the same voting split: 59-19.

Some on the winning side say the showdown at the WKRC was a proxy fight representing the opening salvo of next year's 7th District Senate primary race between Tea Party-supported incumbent Stacey Campfield and challenger Richard Briggs (who was in attendance but didn't participate).

Some on the losing side are using blogger Brian Hornback to accuse club president Ruthie Kuhlman of orchestrating a coup with the assistance of North Knox County political boss Steve Hunley (whom they have renamed "Boss Hogg," of Dukes of Hazzard fame).

Others say Kuhlman foiled Loe's plans for a political comeback after resigning the club presidency last year to run for the state House. He became one of the few Tennessee Republicans to lose when Democrat Gloria Johnson beat him in the general election. Kuhlman was elected chair of the Knox County Republican Party a few weeks ago and is expected to step down from the West Knox club office, which will elevate the vice chair to the top slot.

Kuhlman says her sole intention was to get an infusion of young blood into the party, as per instructions from outgoing party chair Phyllis Severance, whose valedictory address at the party convention earlier this month was an impassioned plea for her successor to build up the party's membership.

"My goal is to bring in new members and to be inclusive," Kuhlman says. "My goal is to increase membership and bring in more young people. Really, my goal is to bring in everybody. Gender doesn't matter. Age doesn't matter. Race doesn't matter."

Hunley, whom the other side suspects of paying several hundred dollars' worth of new membership dues at the meeting, takes exception to being called "Boss Hogg."

"I beg their pardon. Boss Hogg never got anything right. We've had some successes," says Hunley, a longtime Republican who wields considerable influence on County Commission and has become something of a maverick in recent years. (He supported Madeline Rogero for mayor in 2011, for example.) "I'm just unpredictable as hell right now. That's what's killing them."

He says the party needs to hire a recruiter.

Kuhlman says she is mystified by the reception given 24-year-old Waters. When Loe had lost his legislative race, she says she offered the presidency back to him while she would go back to being vice chair. (She also wanted to find a recording secretary.) Loe declined, and John Gabriel decided to stay on as corresponding secretary, so Kuhlman started working on recruiting some young people to fill the two remaining vacancies. She tapped Waters for vice chair and Alex Roehl as recording secretary. She said she was surprised at the January meeting by what happened when she presented her slate.

"A gentleman, Ron Ledbetter, said, ‘I'm going to make it interesting. I'm going to nominate Gary Loe.' That blew me away, because Gary never told me he was interested," Kuhlman says. "So we voted in all the others and said we'd vote for the vice chair next time. Everyone had been saying we need new members, and that's why I had called Alexander, who had been coming to the meetings."

She says she was shocked by the treatment Waters and the other new members received. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing—‘carpetbaggers.' They offended the younger generation and it saddened me. We have to be inclusive."

"Carpetbagger" Waters is a Knoxville native who was Mitt Romney's Knox County campaign chair. He plans to join the law firm of Ragsdale, Long and Waters when he finishes school in May (his father is John Waters III). His mother, Beth Waters, is a longtime community activist who was the force behind Fort Kid, the popular playground located near the Knoxville Museum of Art. His grandfather, John Waters Jr., was a former TVA board chairman.

He confirms Kuhlman's account of his candidacy.

"One day Ruthie called me up and explained that she'd made a call for leadership and come up short. Nobody had stepped up to run. I told her give me a few days to pray about it and I began to brainstorm about what kind of impact I could have," he says. "What irks me is when people run without out having a reason."

Waters' reason, he says, is "a passion for sane conservative principles that make our party worth fighting for. We should focus on investing in Knoxville's youth and bringing in fresh ideas. Once I accepted Ruthie's nomination, the whole process was really organic. I talked to young Republicans from the Romney campaign, and when I told my friends, they not only wanted to support me, but they genuinely wanted to invest in the next generation of Republicans. I also had a really incredible response from more seasoned Republicans. A guy at my church told me, ‘You guys are the legacy we leave behind.'"

A few days after the vote, Absher sent an e-mail to six Republican leaders soliciting speakers for the West Knox Club and expressed particular interest in "smart" utility meters (bad) and the Common Core Curriculum (probably also bad). Kuhlman's name was not on the list of recipients.

When Briggs was asked for his impression of the meeting, he said the issues were bigger than the 7th District senatorial race.

"It's the old-style Ronald Reagan Republicans versus this new Agenda 21 thing," Briggs says. "The Tea Party started out with a lot of good ideas, but they've turned off a lot of people. If Republicans don't change, we're finished as a party of anything other than white middle-aged men. The demographics are shifting, and I was really happy to see young people there."

Corrected: Took out the past-tense reference to Fort Kid, which is still open.