GOP Supersizes Statehouse Supermajorities

If you liked the last two years of the Tennessee General Assembly, there’s a good chance you’ll love the next two. The opposite is probably also true.

Tennessee Republicans picked up two seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate, thus adding cushion to their crushing margins of dominance in both chambers of the statehouse.

There are now more Republicans in the 33-seat Senate than there are Democrats in the 99-seat House. The GOP controls the Legislature by the blowout tallies of 28-5 in the Senate and 73-26 in the House.

And it could have been even worse. Two House Democrats won re-election on thin margins. Nashville Rep. Bo Mitchell edged out Republican Troy Brewer by 430 votes, and David Shepard of Dickson held on by 16 votes against Republican Michael Curcio.

Tuesday’s results mean two more years of relative impotence and frustration for the once mighty Tennessee Democratic Party, which has not only been hemorrhaging seats in the Legislature the last several years, it hasn’t fielded competitive candidates for statewide races since 2006, when Phil Bredesen won a landslide re-election as governor and Harold Ford lost in a tight U.S. Senate contest to Bob Corker.

Republican Mike Bell of Riceville, a former member of the Tennessee House of Representatives who won a fresh four-year state Senate term in an uncontested race Tuesday, said witnessing the two parties’ reversal of fortunes over the years has been stunning.

“When I was elected to the House in 2006, I was in a minority. The Democrats had a 53-46 advantage, and so we rarely passed legislation because it was shot down,” said Bell, who last session chaired the Senate Government Operations Committee. “I’ve gone from serving in a minority when I first came up here, to serving in 28-5 Republican Senate, where there will be no more than one Democrat on every committee, except for possibly Finance, because it’s a larger committee, which will probably have two Democrats. When you look back at where Tennessee had been, one-party control for 140 years, it’s unbelievable where we’ve come over the last years.”

In the House, only a quarter of all the committee seats will be occupied by Democrats. “That is hard to imagine compared to when I was first elected,” said Bell.

Gerald McCormick, the House majority leader, said Wednesday that the election shows Tennesseans are generally satisfied with “the way we have governed our state the last four years.”

The Chattanooga Republican, who like Bell won re-election in an uncontested race, said there’s broad support among the state’s voters for Republican priorities, which he said are “to keep taxes low and regulations to a minimum, and to pay our bills on time and keep our bond ratings good, and balance the budget and make the government work efficiently.”

“I think we’ve tended to do that over the last four years, and they want us to continue to govern conservatively and responsibly,” said McCormick.

But just because huge majorities in both chambers share a party faith, Republicans won’t all be singing from the same hymnal.

McCormick said hotly-disputed issues await, particularly in the areas of education and how best to deal with Obamacare.

Gov. Bill Haslam, re-elected in a landslide against a field of largely unorganized and uncommitted challengers, has claimed that his administration is trying to work out a deal with the federal government to access funding for Medicaid expansion funding under the Affordable Care Act — an effort that has yet to bear fruit. Should any headway be made in negotiations between the Haslam and Obama administrations with respect to Medicaid expansion, McCormick said things could get “very contentious” within the GOP, a large contingent of which is committed to unyielding opposition to Obamacare.

McCormick added that the budget the Halsam administration presents could be a sore spot among Republicans, depending on how the revenue picture looks in a few months. “If the budget numbers don’t come in, then certainly any budget cuts would be tough, and they’re always contentious,” he said.

And then there’s Common Core. Whether Tennessee continues implementing and adhering to the controversial nationally focused math-and-English standards package is an issue McCormick expects will be “discussed early and often.”

“I think you’ll see the Legislature get involved in that very quickly in January,” said McCormick. “And we’ll grapple with that. But we’ve got to do it without abandoning standards, because you’ve got to have standards to make sure that students are learning and teachers are teaching.”

Williamson County Republican Glen Casada, last session’s House GOP caucus chairman, expects “you’ll see a movement amongst House members to overturn it outright — just to delete the Common Core standards, and let it go the way of No Child Left Behind and other failed programs.”

Then there’s the matter of the governor himself. Haslam’s crushing defeat of all comers in the election paints a deceiving portrait of widespread popularity. In fact, the governor and his most loyal political allies, like Speaker Harwell and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, are regarded suspiciously — and even with outright hostility — by a not-so-insignificant block of Tea-Party-friendly lawmakers in both chambers.

McCormick said he expects the House GOP caucus leadership to remain unchanged from last session. “I don’t anticipate any changes, but of course that’s up to the entire caucus membership,” he said.

He also said it is difficult to predict how members of the caucus are going to react to various issues as they unfold. “Usually, it’s something you don’t expect that becomes contentious, so we’ll just have to be ready for whatever it is.”