Party Leaders Plotting 2012 Strategies

State lawmakers may have officially begun their seven-month vacation away from Capitol Hill this month, but top legislative leaders are already evaluating this year’s performance and mapping out their plan for next year’s session and the subsequent election.

Republicans spent the just-concluded session of the Tennessee General Assembly muscling through the kind of legislation that had long been blocked when they sat in the minority. Bloodied, Democrats limped away but unabashedly promised to continue beating back the tide of GOP bills next year — with the ultimate goal of undermining the majority party’s dominance at the polls in November 2012.

In other words, next year’s legislative session may shape up to look a lot like the one that just ended.

“Tennessee Republicans have talked a lot about what we would do when we took power. Now we are showing what we can do,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said in a statement he posted on Facebook recently. “This year was just an appetizer. Next year, and in the years to come, you will see the main course.”

Ramsey was celebrating what he dubbed a “Republican Session,” filled with policy overhauls that would have constituted mere pipe dreams prior to the 2010 election.

“With Republicans now in power, I no longer have to focus on trying to mitigate the damage of backward Democrat policies, I can lead the charge for positive change,” declared Ramsey.

House Democratic ringleaders have been making the case that the both-barrels-blazing confidence exhibited by the “cowboy down the hall” will over time misfire and jam the Republican Party’s chances of maintaining their unalloyed superiority beyond next session.

In particular, the GOP’s rough treatment of core Democratic Party constituencies  — public employee unions, trial lawyers, immigrants, gay and lesbian rights activists — will come back to shoot the Tennessee Republican Party in the foot when voters speak their minds at the polls, predicts House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

The minority-party battle plan going forward is to paint Republicans — particularly those of the Senate — as politically irresponsible, too socially conservative and too oblivious to national media perceptions about Tennessee to lead the state legislature, Turner indicted.

“We had an image that everyone is barefoot and bucktoothed with cowlicks on both sides. We came a long way to diminish some of that,” Turner said of his own party’s decades-long reign in Tennessee.

The Old Hickory firefighter specifically criticized sexual orientation-related bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation — which passed in the Senate but never made it out of the House — and the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act, passed with the support of nine Democrats in the House and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam Monday, which keeps local governments from enacting anti-discrimination mandates on businesses.

“If you look at news clips from across the country, it seemed like we made the paper a whole lot more,” Turner said of the 2011 session.

Turner, whose caucus lost 14 seats in last fall’s election and who barely survived his own tough re-election race, says Tennessee is at its core a politically moderate state, at least by Southern standards. And Republicans fanning the flames of cultural discord by pushing divisive social-issue legislation will translate into Democrats winning back centrist voters’ confidence in November 2012, Turner said.

That is, unless Speaker Beth Harwell and Republican Leader Gerald McCormick successfully pull the party leftward, he said.

“If the Republicans get back to the middle of the road, they can end up ruling for a long time in this state. But I truly believe that if they take the course they’re taking now we’ll be back in power in a very short time,” Turner said.

“Fortunately for us, it appears they’re going to be extreme, and if we can articulate our points, learn from our past mistakes, (we can) hopefully get Democrats back in power in this state,” Turner continued.

McCormick told TNReport Friday he’ll take his chances siding with Republicans of any stripe before he’ll take political advice from Turner. The Chattanooga real-estate broker said he has a hunch Tennesseans as a whole are more conservative than Democrats tend to want to believe.

“He’s always stirring the pot. That’s his job as their caucus chairman,” McCormick said, adding that he feels good about where the Republican Party is at right now. “I’ll be proud to run for re-election on our accomplishments on the first part of this session. We will certainly hold our own in next year’s election.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic Party’s Leader in the House,  warned when he was first elected to his leadership post that if Democrats don’t have a seat at the table, they’ll “be on the menu.”

Things didn’t go as badly as they could have, suggested Fitzhugh. The Democrats did, after all, vote in unanimity with Republicans on a state budget that included an unemployment-benefits extension Democrats lauded as a modest but nevertheless key legislative victory.

“We were at the table, but we certainly didn’t get the same portion as everybody else,” Fitzhugh said to TNReport on the last day of the legislative session. “We stayed at the table for a while, then we were pretty much locked out,” particularly when it came to the collective bargaining debate, which became the Legislature’s capstone bill this year.

But while Fitzhugh, too, characterized some of the Republican legislation as “extreme,” he said Democrats can’t be satisfied with watching the GOP-led action from the cheap seats assuming that come November 2012, their two-year nightmare will come to a merciful end.

“We don’t have much control over what (Republicans) put out. We have to do our best to defeat legislation we don’t think is in the best interest for the state or make it better,” the Ripley Democrat said.