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VOL. 40 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 15, 2016

Right vs. far right: State Republicans itching for a fight

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A rift within the Tennessee Republican party, whether a tempest in a teapot or the early signs of implosion, isn’t likely to hit the big tent party hard at the polls this fall.

But make no mistake, there is some trouble in paradise.

Mark Winslow, a member of the Republican State Executive Committee, dropped a bomb of sorts on the party when he resigned recently, stating on Twitter the political party “is beyond salvage” and that its “soul rotted away some time ago.”

“As it’s currently constituted, the TNGOP is really nothing more than a small corrupt core group who view our party as their private club and personal piggy bank.

“Money is passed around, doled out to friends, handed to favored consultants and staffers who ignore bylaws or common sense. Rules are arrogantly and routinely broken by officers and staff with no consequence or accountability.

“Largely because around this small core, there is a layer of protection forged by SEC [State Executive Committee] members who either participate in corruption, look the other way or fear speaking up will result in the loss of their own status – such as it is,” Winslow wrote.

Winslow’s falling out was years in the making. In 2013, he sued the state party as part of a tiff in the congressional race between Robin Smith and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.

Then Winslow clashed with party leaders in early April over the delegate slate for presidential candidate Donald Trump, contending some true Trump people were removed in favor of others who would support other Republicans at the national convention in Cleveland this July.

Outside of Republican circles and the executive committee, though, Winslow doesn’t appear to be a big player. So whether anyone – especially voters – takes him seriously could be questioned.

His biggest sin could be the party considers him a RINO (Republican in Name Only) because, as a political consultant, he’s done some work for Democrats and Republicans, Nashville political commentator Pat Nolan says.

Nevertheless, Nolan adds, “I think it’s a continuing sign of how the party’s continued to polarize from each other and polarize among themselves to some degree.”

Former Rutherford County state Rep. Joe Carr has a little more clout than Winslow after making a strong showing against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander two years ago, though some may view him as a party troublemaker.

“There is a schism within the party. The establishment part of the party wants to maintain the status quo and get dollars to their friends running against good, conservative Republicans,” says Carr, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Diane Black in the Republican primary for the 6th Congressional District seat.

Carr points toward state Reps. Judd Matheny and Courtney Rogers as party targets, two sitting Republicans with primary challengers.

According to reports, Taylor Ferrell, the wife of Republican Party political director Walker Ferrell, was set to do consulting work for Republicans running against them, in addition to Grant Starrett, a Murfreesboro attorney challenging U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

The situation led to a blow-up by conservative House members who signed a letter calling for the resignation of Ferrell and Republican Party leadership who might have overlooked his wife’s business relationship with Republican challengers.

State Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes, who has found himself in the middle of this swirl even though he’s said his ultimate goal is to put Republicans in every legislative seat on Capitol Hill, downplays the stuff.

He doesn’t even see a split within the party.

“I think there are some individuals that like to portray it that way. But once again I think there’s a small segment of individuals that feel that way,” says Haynes, a former House member from Knoxville. “I think the Republican Party in our state’s as strong as it’s ever been.

“I think, naturally, any time your numbers grow as large as they have you’re going to have differences of opinion form about which way to take the party.

“But when it’s all said and done, we’re all a family and we’re all committed to the same principles of limited government, keeping taxes low, keeping regulations off business.”

No doubt, the party’s numbers show it is in firm command, with 73 of 99 House members, 26 of 31 in the state Senate, six of eight congressional seats, two U.S. senators and the governor.

Bucking Haslam

But just because Gov. Bill Haslam won the 2014 gubernatorial race with ease and remains popular statewide, not all Republicans love him.

Carr contends the effort to keep down conservative Republicans runs “all the way to the governor’s mansion.”

A big part of his evidence is the fact Haslam is holding a July 21 fundraiser for Black at the governor’s mansion.

Carr says he’s never heard of a governor using the taxpayer-funded residence to support one Republican candidate over a serious primary challenger.

“The establishment has come to the understanding in some cases they get to do whatever the hell they want” in terms of raising money and running campaigns, Carr adds.

Carr’s complaint about the fundraiser is “more sour grapes” from his campaign, Black campaign spokesman Jonathan Frank says.

Carr, he adds, has lost endorsements from the National Rifle Association, Tennessee Right to Life and National Right to Life to Black, and “now the most popular governor in modern Tennessee history has agreed to hold a fundraiser for her, as well.”

Black’s campaign trusts Haslam and his staff with being able to run the Tennessee Residence in accordance with all ethics rules and looks forward to a “great event,” Frank says.

Carr, who would have to be considered an underdog again, could be handicapped further in this race because he lives in the 4th Congressional District now represented by DesJarlais.

For decades Rutherford County was in the 6th District, and Carr contends Black, who lives in Gallatin, had it drawn out of the district four years ago to give her an advantage. He says he has no intentions of leaving Rutherford County.

“Joe was in the state House when redistricting happened, so I am surprised that he doesn’t know how the process works,” Frank says. “This campaign seems to be one civics lesson after another for Joe on how the state and federal government operate.

“The state Legislature draws the lines for Congress, not the members of Congress. Joe voted for the congressional map as a state representative. He had no problem with the district lines when he launched his campaign for Congress against Scott DesJarlais in 2013 for the 4th Congressional District. Joe is desperate for a taxpayer-funded job, any office, or district.”

Meanwhile, another conservative Rutherford County representative, as he leaves office, is taking parting shots at Republican power brokers Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale criticizes Harwell’s investigation of Rep. Jeremy Durham for alleged sexual harassment, calling it a politically-motivated “witch hunt.” He sought an opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on the probe of Durham, which was expected to wrap up this week, then challenged the AG’s opinion.

Womick ran against Harwell for the House speaker’s post two years ago but got only 15 votes within the Republican Caucus.

In doing so, he called Haslam a “traitor” for trying to unseat Republican incumbents and claimed a Super PAC backed by the governor sent out mailers accusing him of “putting his political ambition before Rutherford County families” just before the caucus vote in late 2014.

Haslam’s office said he had nothing to do with the flyer.

The outspoken rep continued to hammer at Haslam and Harwell over the last two years and as late as this spring said they orchestrated the investigation of Durham for political reasons, primarily for his efforts to keep Insure Tennessee from passing.

Of course, Harwell wasn’t exactly a big fan of Insure Tennessee, either. But, really, when the mud starts flying, does anyone keep up with who’s on which team?

A “raucous” affair

Asked about the bomb Winslow dropped when he left the Republican State Executive Committee, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada says he doesn’t see the party’s soul rotting away, though he acknowledges he’s not heavily involved with the executive committee.

And even though he was one of 27 House members who signed the letter calling for Ferrell’s resignation, Casada says Haynes took care of the matter by urging Ferrell’s wife to pull out of the races pitting Republicans against each other.

Haynes also says some of those House members later reneged when they looked deeper into the issue.

As to problems within the party, Casada says all of this bickering is simply part of being a Republican.

“I’ve been involved in Republican politics since Ronald Reagan, and from day one we Republicans have been in a constant rift and schism amongst ourselves. It’s just who we are as conservatives,” Casada explains. “We like to debate and argue, and we can be quite contentious and quite rowdy sometimes. But we always rally together at the end of the day.”

Casada, of Williamson County, even dismisses Womick’s pot shots at Haslam and Harwell as typical Republican antics rather than a symptom of a serious problem.

“It happens all the time, and I argue it’s healthy. It’s good to have this. We are a government that’s governed by the people, which means it’s going to be raucous and contentious. But it beats the alternative, which is a dictator,” he adds.

Haynes points out people looking for divisions within the Republican Party should really take a look at the Democratic Party, which he says is “absolutely decimated” and not “gaining any ground.”

The numbers would bear that out.

Democratic House members refer to themselves as “the fighting 26,” but that figure could fall by one or two this year, especially with longtime Rep. David Shepard opting not to seek re-election in District 69 representing Hickman and parts of Maury and Dickson counties.

One thing that could help Tennessee Democrats is the absence of President Barack Obama from the ballot. But considering the email troubles of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and general distrust for her across the state, Democrats aren’t going to sweep into office on her coattails.

So while the situation with Winslow could be seen as “inside baseball,” according to Nolan, battling between Republicans is similar to what took place between Democrats for years when they were about the only game in town.

Nolan recalls the 1966 Democratic conflagration in which John Jay Hooker ran against Buford Ellington for the governor’s office with Gov. Frank Clement backing Ellington.

The roles are reversed 50 years later.

Democrats could win some seats this November and “put the fear of God” into Republicans, Nolan says. But the GOP isn’t concerned about fall losses.

“Those people on the Hill have been a hell of a lot more scared about what’s going to happen to them in the primary than what’s going to happen to them in the (August) general election,” Nolan points out.

In fact, the 2016 session’s refusal to bring Obamacare to Tennessee, along with efforts to legislate use of restrooms by transgender people and to let therapists refuse to counsel gay people are all seen as House Republican efforts to regain their seats this fall.

Combined, those are probably good strategy, because in spite of inner bickering, Republicans in Tennessee are nowhere near the point of “Paradise Lost.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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