Nixing U.S. Senate Primaries Put Off for Now

The full state Senate heard opening salvos of debate Monday on a bill that would change the process by which Tennesseans pick their U.S. senators.

The legislation, Senate Bill 471, introduced by Strawberry Plains Republican Frank Niceley, would hand the power to choose candidates over to state lawmakers, who would caucus along party lines and place their choices on the ballot for general elections. The measure was approved last week in the Tennessee Senate State and Local Government Committee on a 7-1 vote, with only Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate voting “no.”

Currently, Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate are selected by voters in open primaries, although the party establishments retain some authority to void or challenge election results if they’re dissatisfied with the results.

After noting that for the first 126 years of the country’s history U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures, Niceley argued on the upper-chamber floor Monday evening that formally reintroducing General Assembly lawmakers back into the selection process would bring Tennessee — and, over time, the country — more in line with the intentions of the country’s founders.

In 1913, passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave authority for selecting membership in what has been termed “the world’s most exclusive club” directly to the American people. In Niceley’s view, an unfortunate national consequence of that shift in state-level political dynamics was to loosen a reliable curb against unrestrained expansions of federal power.

“The check that the states had on a runaway federal government was the (United States) Senate,” Niceley said. “The Founding Fathers wanted the state legislatures to…elect the U.S. Senators so that the U.S. Senators would be ambassadors to Washington.”

Niceley was quick to point out that Volunteer State voters would still get the final say as to who goes to Washington in the general elections under SB471. He asserted, though, that establishing a system whereby major-party U.S. Senate nominees are picked by members of the General Assembly would bolster the Legislature’s Beltway influence.

If “10 or 15 small Red States” were to follow suit, a philosophically like-minded bloc might “get control of the U.S. Senate,” said Niceley. Three or four other states have considered or are considering such a move, he said. “Washington is out of control — it’s not going to fix itself,” Niceley declared. “This is about trying to save America.”

“The greatest fears of our Founding Fathers have come true,” said Niceley. “The federal government has usurped our powers, there’s no denying that. Anyone who thinks Washington is working, you’re in a dreamworld.”

Niceley’s logic wasn’t universally embraced, even by Republicans. Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey bristled at the idea of taking any decision-making power from state voters.

“This bill is anti-democratic,” the Germantown Republican told his fellow senators. “This bill smells of elitism, of cronyism, and it would open up a system that was, and could be in the future, rife for corruption. It is entirely self-interested of this General Assembly to vote to give itself the power to pick the political party nominees for the United States Senate. It is a bad idea and I sincerely hope we do not pursue it.”

Kelsey noted the curious irony that exactly 100 years ago, on April Fools’ Day 1913, Tennessee ratified the 17th Amendment.

No Democrats rose to voice opinions one way or the other on Niceley’s bill Monday night, but earlier in the day Roy Herron, the Tennessee Democratic Party’s recently installed chairman and himself a former state senator from Dresden, said his side doesn’t want to be included in the bill. “Once again, the reactionary and radical Republicans want to take us back a couple of centuries, to the 1800s when the Legislature picked our senators until corruption and the people finally ended the practice by constitutional amendment in 1913,” said Herron.

GOP Sens. Mark Norris of Collierville, Janice Bowling of Tullahoma and Rusty Crowe of Johnson City asked for time to discuss the issue with constituents. Niceley agreed to postpone bringing SB471 up for a vote until the end of this year’s session — possibly later this month.

It’s unclear the level of support the proposal will draw, but the state Senate’s most powerful legislator appears on board. Speaking to reporters last week, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called Niceley’s legislation an “interesting prospect.” He acknowledged that doing away with primaries will strike some as voter disenfranchisement, but said party-level or pre-general election candidate selection processes aren’t uniform across the country.

“Lot’s of states do caucuses,” said the Tennessee Senate speaker, a Republican from Blountville. “Lots of states don’t use the primary system…and in the end, in November, obviously (the people) will get to vote.”

The House version of Niceley’s legislation, HB415 by Knoxville Republican Harry Brooks, is still working its way through the committee system. It’s scheduled to go before the Local Government Committee April 2.

John Klein Wilson and Mark Engler contributed to this story.