The center of gravity in Tennessee politics has shifted so hard to the right that two dozen conservative Republican incumbents are under attack as moderate squishes and cowardly sell-outs in their own party's primary elections for the state legislature.
This is the same legislature that in two years of GOP control has restricted abortion rights and banned gay nondiscrimination laws; opened the door to the teaching of creationism in science classes and prohibited any utterance of the word "gay" in public schools; declared Tennessee exempt from federal firearms regulations (the ATF, incidentally, begs to differ); OK'ed monuments to the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns; eviscerated the teachers' union; and proclaimed in a resolution that U.N. Agenda 21 — an innocent nonbinding blueprint for sustainable growth in emerging economies — could lead to "socialist/communist redistribution of wealth" among other very bad things. And that's just to mention a few of the accomplishments that should have made the right wing proud.
Yet all across the state, rather than accepting tributes as expected from a grateful party faithful, 24 of these lawmakers have faced humiliation. Schlepping themselves around their districts in triple-digit heat, they grovel for votes door to door. Early voting started Friday for the Aug. 2 elections.
Inciting this insurrection is the tea party, the gun lobby and talk radio — together a loud and influential chunk of the GOP base that sees the legislature as not nearly radical enough.
Last week the state's politicians were dismayed to learn the National Rifle Association is spending $75,000 to try to defeat the House's No. 3 Republican, Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart. That's probably the most a single special interest ever has spent in one legislative race in Tennessee.
The ultimate goal, insiders agree, isn't merely to unseat these incumbents but to dethrone Nashville Rep. Beth Harwell as House speaker. She always has been seen, correctly or incorrectly, as way too moderate to suit the party's hard-right base. By most accounts, Harwell only squeaked by tea party darling Glen Casada in secret balloting in the speaker's election two years ago, and only then because of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by Gov. Bill Haslam, another of the party's so-called moderates. Since then, she has angered the GOP's more radical elements by quietly working with Haslam at times to temper certain of her colleagues' more extreme tendencies.
Haslam isn't up for re-election until 2014, but rebellious elements of the party are harassing him already. Several GOP county chapters have adopted resolutions denouncing the governor for hiring a Muslim woman and some openly gay staffers, and for declining to sign that aforementioned anti-U.N. Agenda 21 resolution.
Harwell herself is unopposed in her primary. She's untouchable in her Green Hills district, where she's simpatico with all the Cadillac Escalade-driving moms who clog Hillsboro Pike. But the GOP agitators are trying to take out two prominent members of her leadership team — the party's House caucus leader, Maggart, and the Finance Committee chairman, Franklin's Charles Sargent. In all, 21 of the primary contests are for the House. The more losing incumbents, the shakier Harwell's hold on the speaker's gavel.
"You could not imagine this scenario," says Frank Cagle, columnist for Knoxville's alt-weekly Metro Pulse and one of the state's few conservatives willing to admit the GOP is ripping itself to shreds. "Republicans take over the House and Senate and the governor's office, and in the next elections, 24 incumbents have primary opponents. It's nuts. These incumbents are conservative enough, for God's sake.
"Here's the root cause of all this — a bunch of people are pissed because Beth Harwell is the speaker," Cagle adds. "They think Harwell isn't conservative enough. If they elect 21 of these wackos out here who are running against the incumbents, they can elect whoever they want as speaker."
Publicly, party leaders spin it counter-intuitively: All this nasty fighting actually shows what a healthy and vibrant and beautiful thing the GOP is. It's democracy at its best! But the tea party challenges must be particularly galling to the incumbents, since Republicans were the ones who encouraged and embraced this so-called populist protest movement from the beginning. And now look how the tea party is repaying the favor — by trying to throw these lawmakers out of office. Frankenstein's monster is aliiiiiive! — and he's ripping off his electrodes and pulverizing his creators.
Tea party leaders say their members feel betrayed. The GOP promised a lot but failed to deliver, and now it's payback time.
"What's my beef?" asks David Nance, chairman of the Tennessee 8th District Tea Party Coalition, one of the state's more politically active tea party groups. "We offered several pieces of legislation. They were all killed or withdrawn. We got nothing, zilch. Why did our bills fail? The Republican leadership shut them down, that's why. Now, we hope to create a conservative party out of the Republican Party."
Tea partiers cite three of their bills in particular that went nowhere in the legislature. All tell the federal government to shove it. One sets up a kind of kangaroo court to rule on whether federal laws are constitutional and whether Tennessee chooses to follow them. Another orders federal law enforcement agencies to win the permission of county sheriffs before doing anything in Tennessee. The last one frees Tennessee-made products from federal interstate commerce regulation.
None of these bills would do what they purport to do — or anything at all, for that matter — because they all are blatantly and obviously unconstitutional, not to mention silly. The federal government would ignore them. Nance doesn't seem to realize this but probably wouldn't care if he did.
"We're encouraging our state legislature to butt heads with the overreaching federal government," he says. "Butt heads."
The gun lobby names the failure of only one piece of legislation as the cause of its outrage: a bill giving employees the right to bring their loaded handguns to work and leave them locked in their cars on company-owned parking lots. Tennessee businesses lobbied hard against the bill for fear that disgruntled workers would go postal, grab their pistols out of their car trunks and shoot up their businesses. House Republican leaders scuttled the bill, mainly because of the business opposition but also because they worried it might look bad to voters if they kept expanding Second Amendment rights beyond all reason after passing the guns-in-bars law only a couple of years ago.
The NRA blames Harwell but is taking it out on Maggart, spending some of its $75,000 in Maggart's race to plaster her picture alongside President Obama's on a billboard. "Rep. Debra Maggart says she supports your gun rights," the billboard reads. "Of course, he says the same thing."
Maggart's opponent is a political newcomer named Courtney Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and tea party activist. In a speech to Republicans at the Robertson County Reagan Day Dinner, Rogers didn't mention the guns-in-parking-lots bill but did call Obama "arrogant, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, and anti-American." She finished with this weird but crowd-pleasing call to action:
"Moses did not lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Jesus Christ did not die upon the cross. Our founding fathers did not risk their lives, their fortunes and their families. Abraham Lincoln did not bring this nation to war. Martin Luther King did not march. And every veteran in the history of this nation did not fight and die for us to lay down and give up our freedom."
Another retired soldier and tea partier, Rob Hathaway, is running against Sargent, hitting the chairman for taking his $173 in state per diem during legislative sessions even though he doesn't need to stay in hotels because he lives in Franklin and can drive home at night to sleep in his own bed. Hathaway is also up in arms because lawmakers sometimes vote for absent colleagues, occasionally using sticks to punch the buttons because they're too lazy to get up out of their seats.
Cagle doesn't think any of these issues is the real motivation for the GOP civil war. Instead, he says the gun lobby is fomenting unrest to raise donations from supporters, and he accuses right-wing talk radio, specifically Nashville's Steve Gill, of joining in the attack to improve ratings.
"My main thesis is that they've kind of made an industry out of being indignant, and they've got followers and contributors and a radio audience," Cagle says. "Now that they're in charge, what are they going to do? You still need money and ratings and you need to keep everybody ginned up. So what do you do? Well, you just get even more radical."
Gill, who dismisses Cagle as writing "for a piss-ant paper in Knoxville," says all the incumbents deserve what they're getting for turning their backs on the True Believers in the Republican Party and becoming too chummy with liberal journalists and corporate lobbyists in Nashville.
"They run as conservatives, but when they get to Nashville, they want to hang out at the country club and sip Chablis and have the Democratic media love them," Gill says.
As for the future, according to Gill, it hardly matters whether any of these challengers actually win. The mere fact that this could happen again in the next election ought to scare the daylights out of sitting legislators, who hate to have to wage campaigns to stay in office.
"If they want to be one of these squishy RINO Republicans, fine," Gill warns. "Run as that. We're going to sort out those who are the pretenders and those who say what they mean and mean what they say."
With the state's hapless Democrats reduced to observer status in our new one-party state, watch for the next legislature to lurch even farther to the right, if that's possible. The crazy train is heading around the bend.