Tennessee Republicans are looking to tighten their grip on state government in the Nov. 6 general election by winning an even larger legislative majority than they’ve enjoyed the last two years.
But party leaders, particularly in the House, say a first priority is to ensure that members of their caucus survive challenges in the Aug. 2 primary.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart both say incumbents winning primaries is a prime concern. In McCormick’s words, incumbents deserve to be “rewarded on election day” for responsibly governing since they began dominating state politics two years ago.
“Certainly, we want our incumbents to win,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “We think everyone, or close to everyone, is going to win. And then we feel like we can pick some seats up this November as a result of our staying focused on the issues voters care about.”
Maggart sees it as her unwavering responsibility to ensure sitting lawmakers get their jobs back next year. And she faces her own tough re-election challenge against Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.
Supporting a candidate can mean everything from political donations from individual lawmakers or the well-funded House GOP Caucus, appearances from high-ranking lawmakers such as Speaker Beth Harwell and even coming out to knock on doors or work political fundraisers.
“My job is to bring the incumbents back,” Maggart told TNReport. “That’s our job — my job — as the caucus leader.”
But while GOP legislative leaders say they see it as their rightful role to protect the already-in crowd, some prominent outsiders who speak for constituencies typically seen as leaning Republican argue that in reality, principles ought to take precedence over the power of incumbency.
The automatic impulse to protect incumbents is rarely the answer — and more often likely part of the problem, argues Ben Cunningham, spokesman of Tennessee Tax Revolt and a founder of the Nashville Tea Party.
“People tend to stay in office far too long and have a sense of entitlement about being re-elected, and that tends to be reinforced by the reality,” Cunningham told TNReport this week.
He said anytime voters can get candidate variety and real ballot-booth choices, it is rarely a bad thing.
“I think that’s one thing most Tea Party people have in common — that we tend to be skeptical of the sense of entitlement that comes with long-term incumbency,” Cunningham said. “I simply don’t feel any loyalty to someone because they’re an incumbent.”
In the primary election this summer, 21 House Republican incumbents face off against GOP challengers who say they better represent the party’s values or are better suited for the job than the sitting state rep. Four GOP state senators have primary opponents.
“Part of the problem is that some incumbents have become addicted to power,” said John Harris, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Firearms Association, which lost a long-fought battle with Republicans this year over allowing gun owners to stow their weapon in their locked car at work. The TFA supports Maggart’s opponent, Rogers, as a result of GOP leaders stonewalling the bill instead of allowing debate and an up-or-down vote on the House floor, where Harris says the legislation would likely have won approval.
His squabble with Maggart over gun rights is “merely a symptom of a much deeper problem with the personal agenda of incumbents and the caucus within the General Assembly, primarily the House of Representatives, to raise funds to retain power and their offices rather than to demonstrate by their actions that they can be trusted with a return to office,” Harris said.
“The question citizens need answered is, Who controls such a system?” Harris said. “It is not the citizens. It is elected officials who are seeking re-election. It is the caucus. It is a product called ‘incumbent protection’ even from members of their own partisan parties.”
The state Republican Party wouldn’t comment specifically on how they balance supporting incumbents versus ensuring those elected sport solid Republican values. But it tipped its hat to the current GOP powers that be in the Legislature for lowering taxes and reducing spending.
“We work very hard to recruit solid, conservative candidates to run for office, and encourage voters to listen to all the candidates and what they stand for when selecting our party’s nominees,” said TNGOP Chris Devaney.