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VOL. 41 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 17, 2017

Despite massive turnover, GOP owns legislature

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2018 will be a year of change for the Tennessee General Assembly, and 2019 will bring even more, especially in leadership – much depending on the popularity of President Donald Trump.

Not only is the Legislature moving to the Cordell Hull Building, vacating the Legislative Plaza after 45 years or so, a number of legislative faces are changing, too, even before next year’s election.

In other words, visitors will need a map, a scorecard and maybe a gun, considering people with carry permits will be allowed to go armed in Cordell Hull.

Truth be told, any lawmaker, lobbyist, staffer or press member with an ID card could bypass THP metal detectors and bring a gun into the Legislative Plaza. But weapons sanctions by the House and Senate speakers seem to be another question, one that will require state troopers to do a lot more security work in vetting those allowed to carry.

Weaponry aside, House Republicans are seeing at least a dozen members opting out next year, and almost the entire Senate leadership will be different.

“I’d say it’s unusual to have that much flux going on in a legislative body before we actually get into the election year,” says Nashville political observer Pat Nolan. “And a lot of it has to do with Trump, because a lot of these people that are leaving are leaving because they’re taking positions in the Trump Administration, and the one who’s not (Mae Beavers) is running for governor, and she’s running and trying to be the Trump candidate.

“So, he’s got a finger to some degree in all of them.”

On the Senate Republican side: Jim Tracy of Shelbyville recently left his position as speaker pro tem for a job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Doug Overbey of Maryville is taking a post as U.S. attorney and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is trying on black robes after going through a Senate confirmation hearing for a West Tennessee U.S. District judgeship.

The Conservative Beavers left her Senate seat to run for governor and is largely considered a Trump candidate.

Looking ahead, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron is running for Rutherford County mayor in 2018 and won’t return to the Senate after four terms. He battled cancer a couple of years ago but is in remission.

Ketron’s decision leaves an open seat, and state Rep. Dawn White is running for the 13th District post against Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess, a retired NHC executive.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris of Memphis is running for Shelby County mayor and won’t return after the coming year. The outspoken Harris will be difficult to replace.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, in her second term representing a Memphis district, is considering seeking the seat Harris will vacate. And Memphis Rep. Joe Towns’ name is mentioned as well for a potential Senate run.

A couple of notable Democratic changes include Rep. Sherry Jones potentially leaving to run for Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk, and Rep. Brenda Gilmore running for Democratic Sen. Thelma Harper’s seat.

The governor’s race is having more impact on leadership than the departure of Beavers. House Speaker Beth Harwell is running in the Republican primary, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh is facing former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Democratic primary for the governor’s office.

Harwell and Fitzhugh will continue serving in 2018, but their candidacy means they’ll be bowing out of the Legislature after lengthy tenures, Harwell back to the late ’80s and Fitzhugh to the mid-’90s.

Republican Rep. Charles Sargent of Franklin also announced recently he won’t seek re-election, meaning the House will have a new chairman of the influential Finance, Ways & Means Committee.

“There’s obviously going to be a big turnover, and it’s going to give a lot of people who have been waiting their turn an opportunity to assume leadership positions,” says Kent Syler, Middle Tennessee State University political science professor.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of personal stamp they put on the Legislature. I think right now it’s difficult to tell how much the same or different it’s going to be. Many of the people assuming leadership posts ran on the same issues as the people leaving. So that would make you not expect a lot of change. But you never know.”

House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams points out Republicans have had a couple of large freshmen classes since he won election in 2010 and Republicans took a supermajority in the House.

The 2016 election saw only a handful of changes.

“I think the truth is that the amount of institutional knowledge in that cycle is going to dramatically reduce, whoever the winners are,” Williams acknowledges. “If there’s 20 new members out of 99, that’s 20 percent of people who are new to the process, which may be, regardless of whether they’re Republican or Democrat, the highest yet.”

Those new legislators will be choosing the House speaker, too, he adds, not necessarily those who return.

House Majority Leader Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, considers the changes a “natural progression,” since many of the legislators will be running for other offices and taking different jobs.

“It’s logical in that the governor’s leaving, and so it’s a logical time to be leaving. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Casada says.

Casada, former House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville, and House Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson are on the record as saying they’re interested in the speaker’s post. Reps. Tim Wirgau and Barry Doss have been mentioned as well.

Doss carried the governor’s IMPROVE Act, a combination of gas tax increases and tax reductions, through the House earlier this year.

Hawk proposed a measure using general fund money but couldn’t get enough traction.

Nolan predicts House speaker wannabes will spend a good deal of energy picking House candidates and helping them win so they’ll have their support when they show up for next November’s caucus meeting. New Republicans might not know where the restrooms are at the Cordell Hull Building, he notes, but they’ll know whom to support for speaker.

Trump fallout or favor

Democrats in Virginia elections won the governor’s office and as many as 15 seats there, shifting the balance of power away from a 66-34 Republican advantage in what many consider a referendum on the president.

“I think it was a backlash to President Trump, and I think Democrats really showed some energy in the turnouts,” Syler says.

“It was their first time to really fight back, and if that carries through into next year, the Democrats could have a pretty good year.”

Syler and Nolan both agree, though, that while Virginia was trending purple to blue already, Tennessee is solidly red. Virginia, for instance, voted for Barack Obama twice and Hillary Clinton most recently, while Tennessee hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996.

Nationwide and in Virginia, Trump’s approval rating is much lower than in Tennessee, where it remains in the 50 range.

“President Trump’s numbers with the Republican base remain very, very strong. I think you’re going to continue to see Republican elected officials embrace the president. They really have no other choice,” Syler explains.

Trump won Tennessee by 26 percentage points, and he continues to wield considerable influence. Even though U.S. Sen. Bob Corker decided not to seek re-election in 2018 amid a public spat with Trump, ultimately the president wins if a conservative Republican such as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn captures the seat.

The question heading into the 2018 election, Syler notes, is whether Trump’s approval rating will remain in the 50s or dips into the lower 40s, opening a door for Democrats.

“The election is going to be just as much about Donald Trump, if not more, than it will be about the people whose names are on the ballot,” Syler adds.

Speculation is rampant about the impact of Trump on state races in the wake of the Virginia results. Whether the same thing could happen in Tennessee “may be a bridge too far” for Democrats, Nolan says.

But if former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, enters and wins the U.S. Senate race, it might be the race that enables Democrats to recapture the Senate, according to Nolan.

Of course, Casada scoffs at such an idea, contending Republicans will maintain the governorship and the U.S. Senate seat, even if Bredesen and Karl Dean lead the Democratic ticket. Nashville attorney James Mackler is contending as a Democrat for the Senate seat as well.

“I think you’ll see them get the highest percentage they’ve gotten in years. But, no, there is just no way 50 percent of Tennesseans will vote for those two gentlemen. They’re fine gentlemen. It’s just the party they represent is so far from the values of Tennesseans,” Casada maintains.

Bredesen and Dean might as well run as independents, Casada says. He laughs when he says it, but he’s not really joking.

The analysis

The Republican supermajority is probably the only thing etched in stone over the next year.

While Democrats say they represent Tennessee’s working people, fighting for them on issues such as health insurance, education and better roads, Republicans maintain the upper hand on social issues such as same-sex marriage and the Second Amendment.

Democrats hold only a couple of rural seats across the state, and they could lose one of those in West Tennessee where Fitzhugh is set to leave because of the governor’s race.

Says House Republican Caucus Chairman Williams of Cookeville, “In my district in particular, most voters feel like the Democratic Party’s walked away from them.”

Democrats will remain strong in urban areas of Nashville and Memphis. Don’t look for Nashville’s doughnut counties to shift Democrat too much as the suburban vote did in Virginia. Even so, only a handful of seats are really up for a party swap.

And unless a federal investigation into the Russian influence on America’s presidential election finds Vladimir Putin personally funded Trump’s campaign, Tennessee voters are likely to stick with Republicans.

Still, a map of the Cordell Hull Building, legislative name tags and maybe a Saturday night special will be useful in Nashville over the next couple of years.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Hamilton County Herald and Knoxville Ledger. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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