Over the weekend, a Tennessee GOP establishment figure took a convincing re-election win against a challenger looking to lead the party in a more conservative direction. But that hasn’t resulted in state Rep. Rick Womick having second thoughts about taking on Beth Harwell for the title of House speaker.
During the TNGOP’s leadership elections held in Nashville on Saturday, Chris Devaney, who has served as the state party’s chairman for the last 5 years, collected 47 votes from the executive committee. Devaney’s challenger, Joe Carr, a former state representative who unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Lamar Alexander in the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary earlier this year, snagged only 17 votes.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with that,” Womick told TNReport following the TNGOP vote. “That was a completely different, separate issue.”
Carr was running “an uphill battle” against “a very well liked” party leader in Devaney, said Womick. And whereas Devaney clearly “has done a lot” for Republicans during his tenure as TNGOP’s top strategist and party-resources coordinator, Harwell has mostly just ruffled feathers under her reign, he said.
“We have serious philosophy and leadership issues that are involved,” Womick said. Between him and Harwell, “there is a clear choice of leadership.”
The Republican caucus is scheduled Wednesday to pick a nominee for speaker. There are 73 Republicans in the House of Representatives, and only 26 Democrats. So barring successful execution of some astonishing gavel-grabbing scheme that splits the GOP caucus in January, whomever the lower-house Republicans nominate this week will be the speaker for the next two years.
The question that members of the House GOP caucus should be asking themselves is “which way do we want the House to go?” Womick said. “Do we want to go the way where we constantly listen to the governor and do what he tells us to do, or do we represent the people?”
Harwell, R-Nashville, is the odds on favorite to win a third term in control of the GOP-supermajority controlled lower chamber — at least as far as most House Republican members are willing to say publicly.
Even Womick has placed his solid support among the caucus at only around 25 members — although he says more may support him secretly.
Womick emphatically refuted the possibility that, should he come up short in the GOP caucus vote this week, he might seek a deal with Democrats to entice them to join forces with Tea Party-leaning Republicans to oust Harwell. While it’s an idea the retired Air Force fighter pilot said he’s recently heard suggested often, it isn’t something he’d ever consider.
“I would never do exactly what Haslam’s doing, and try to perform a coup with the Democrats to take over on the floor of the House,” Womick said, reiterating that one of his “biggest complaints” has been primary-election targeting of incumbent Republican legislators by allies of the governor.
“If Beth Harwell wins, she will have my 100 percent support, and I will vote for her on the floor of the House — if she wins the caucus race,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Womick challenged the speaker to a public debate — or “at the very least, a debate before all elected members of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.” However, Womick said he never received a response from Harwell.
In an email to TNReport Monday, Harwell’s spokeswoman wrote, “As per the caucus bylaws, each candidate will have the opportunity for brief remarks Wednesday morning.”