50 shades of red: With GOP supermajorities come many factions to herd

Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 10:58pm

The day after Republicans snatched up supermajorities on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, Democrats fought a largely losing battle to remain relevant.

But the real action was taking place elsewhere.

Republicans who spent decades dreaming about this day were realizing the depth of what they had gotten themselves into.

The party — which is not nearly as monolithic as its candidates would make the party sound on the campaign trail — now has an overwhelming 70 state representatives and 27 senators occupying Capitol Hill, along with a midterm Republican governor.

Among them is a diverse group of people coming into office with their own priorities, categorized by interests in regional, urban, rural, constitutional, small government and business areas — and everywhere in between.

But in a group so big, those interests lend themselves to factions, voting blocks, cliques or at least something like it.

“There are a lot of things that are going to be a challenge for this caucus to stay unified,” said Rep. Joe Carr, a three-term Republican from Lascassas.

With enough members to run either chamber of the General Assembly itself, there is plenty of reason for parties to grow within themselves. That’s because Republicans at their core are independent, said Carr, himself part of a class of grassroots Republicans elected to office in the beginning of the tea party era.

“We don’t function in bureaucracies like our Democratic counterparts,” he said. “And so the task of herding 70 members will not be unlike herding cats.”

The last time the majority party in the House had more than 65 members was in 1977, when Democrats ran the show. Before that, Democrats always occupied at least two-thirds of both chambers from 1901 until 1967.

Now they are on the opposite side of that equation. The day after the election, top Democrats — who have been rendered unnecessary by the new Republican majorities — tried to spin their losses as a win for their party, which managed to ward off further cuts into the caucus.

As content as Democrats are to sit back and watch Republicans juggle their new majorities, they say they’ll be a player on legislation that one faction might push over the other.

“If they need our votes on a good bill for people of Tennessee that we can reach across the aisle and work with them, we’re there for it,” said Rep. Mike Turner, an Old Hickory Democrat and chairman of the House Democrats’ 28-member caucus.

“But some of those people, they’re against breathing, so they’re never going to go along with what we’re trying to do here,” he said.

Cut the Republican caucus in a multitude of ways and you’ll find varying interests. But like a Venn diagram, swaths of Republicans overlap multiple voting blocks.

Take the chief faction: leadership.

High-ranking members of each chambers’ GOP leadership share most of the same goals, namely pushing Gov. Bill Haslam’s priorities.

Leadership is chiefly directed by House Speaker Beth Harwell — who closely aligns herself with the governor — and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. In the past two years, it was rare for the two legislative leaders to not see eye-to-eye with the governor. And when they don’t, it’s worked out quickly and behind closed doors.

This group also has to think about the next election two years down the road, and tries to make sure the legislation their fellow Republicans have to vote on isn’t a politically risky issue that will come back to haunt them in the next primary or general election.

Oftentimes, because of their own backgrounds, leadership’s interests are synonymous with those of another group: business.

This class’s key is to make the state more attractive and friendly to business, with priorities such as reducing business regulations, enticing businesses with economic development grants, reforming workers compensation rules or capping legal damages.

“They’re all business-oriented in terms of, what do we have to do to appease and make big business happy,” said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearm Association.

Harris went to blows with leadership after high-ranking GOP leadership blocked a vote on the so called “guns in lots” bill that would have let gun owners legally store their firearms in their cars parked on company property.

“They’re perfectly content to kiss the insurance industry or the medical industry and try to make this a better environment for them, even if that means stomping on constitutional rights of the citizens,” said Harris.

Those same gun rights folks often overlap with “constitutionalist” lawmakers who argue on issues like how the government should follow the state’s guiding document by popularly electing high-court judges or argue for state sovereignty from the federal government.

The group of constitutional champions is expected to grow with the addition of several newly elected members who were largely carried to office with the help of thousands of dollars from gun rights interests.

Another brand of Republican is the type that wants to shrink the size of government. Die-hards want to take it a step further. Some have disdain for the idea that government decides winners and losers in business by handing out millions of taxpayer dollars in economic incentives — which butts heads with those who actively want to hand out that money to companies it can lure to enter or expand in the state.

But some of the biggest voting blocks within the Republican majorities will likely fall on geographic lines, lawmakers of all stripes say.

Legislators naturally band together on issues affecting whichever Grand Division of Tennessee (East, Middle or West) they hail from, regardless of party. The same goes for legislation drawing a line in the sand between rural and urban issues.

Take education. Lawmakers like Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin worry that schools in his affluent suburban district should push harder on teaching students foreign languages. Whereas lawmakers in more rural areas are focused on giving their schools tools to turn around weak test scores.

Or economic development. Urban lawmakers would love to see more business headquarters relocate to their areas, whereas rural lawmakers are more concerned with getting manufacturing or other such industries to call their districts home.

High-ranking Republican leaders pooh-poohed suggestions that the next two years could reveal party infighting, but don’t deny there are a plethora of opinionated lawmakers taking up residence on Capitol Hill for the next two years who they’ll have to keep their eyes on.

That job will fall squarely on the shoulders of leadership — especially in the House. Of the 70 Republicans in the lower chamber, 18 are freshman.

“It’s going to be on Speaker Beth Harwell and her tight-knit lieutenants to keep it under control and to keep them focused on a broad base of interest, rather than some little, isolated independent direction,” said Wayne Scharber, interim president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and a key fan of the pro-business crowd.

The job is considerably easier in the Senate, which is one-third the size of the House. There, Ramsey has eight freshmen to handle when he bangs the gavel in January.

“When people become a part of the Republican Caucus, they don’t stop thinking for themselves. I’ve always allowed members to have their own viewpoints,” said the on-message Harwell.

But when asked in a room full of reporters exactly how she expects to wrangle a 70-member caucus that has “a lot of cats to herd,” her eyes darted and it took her a few seconds to respond.

“I just do the best I can,” she said quietly.

“I know every one of these freshmen. I know their heart; I know how hard they worked to be here. I think they’re going to be hardworking, good legislators.”

11 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 11/12/12 at 5:01

A good article and probably true. The writer was probably motivated to write this story by being a Democrat. Democrats in todays world are focused by a common bond. They all want "free stuff"

By: joe41 on 11/12/12 at 10:53

I disagree. We don't want free stuff. We just don't want the Republicans making the decisions about educating our young, women's health issues, fixing our infrastructure, etc. Now they don't want the state deciding on the health care options for our uninsured. Why, because they don't like Obamacare. I hate to tell you, but it is the law. So now make it work for Tennessee.

By: Rasputin72 on 11/12/12 at 11:09

Joe41. It all adds up to free stuff. Get your kids in private school and get your family some BlueCross/BlueShield of Tennessee.

By: vankent on 11/12/12 at 11:36

Rasputin -- How can it be free stuff if we're paying for it with our taxes? Public schools helped the Greatest Generation raise their families and helped this country grow. There is nothing free about providing an education to those who fought to keep this country free. For most, a public education is the best opportunity they will get. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to try to make it the best possible learning experience. Free stuff? Hardly.

By: GoodieTwoShoes on 11/12/12 at 11:39

We don't want free stuff, just want people that are willing to sell Tennessee to the highest bidder. We want the legislature to take care of Tennesseans first, not business first.

By: Rasputin72 on 11/12/12 at 12:01

I would never allow my children or grandchildren to attend public school in Davidson county unless it was Hume Fogg.

The public school system that educated my father and myself has vanished with only a trace.

I have an opinion on what caused it, I hardly think it necesssry to expand on the cause ad long as the private schools provided what disappeared.

I still pay taxes to make a fledgling pass at educating what is left

the public schools and even provide free lunch and free breakfast. Private school and taxes for the public schools are a burdrn. Faced with the alternative it is money well spent.

By: Bellecat on 11/12/12 at 12:11

"This class’s key is to make the state more attractive and friendly to business, with priorities such as reducing business regulations, reforming workers compensation rules or capping legal damages. “They’re all business-oriented in terms of, what do we have to do to appease and make big business happy...”

Nothing in the above statement is meant to help any citizen--it is ALL about republicans and business interests, and their never ending greed for more power and more money at the expense of everything and everybody else. Why would any intelligent person vote against their own interests, and our country's interests by voting for these Neanderthals?????

These people want no regulations on business at all. They want to exempt businesses from adhering to the most basic safety, environmental, health and workplace rules and regulations, no protection for the worker at all. They want workers to work for nothing--paying the lowest wages they can get away with, and little or no benefits, on and on ad nauseum.

Again, why would any intelligent person vote against their own interests, and our country's interests by voting for these Neanderthals?????

By: consultmlcesq on 11/12/12 at 12:36

Au Contrare. There is nothing factional about the Tennessee State GOP. They are 50 shades of red but are all bleeding onto the same page of the same chapter of the same book, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, "Taking Back Our Streets." What you have cited in this article are not different factional views; but different focuses on the various core values of the GOP party. As Joe Carr says, they are mostly "independent" meaning of a separatist leaning and most of them agree on the issues, which are basically (1) arming the militia (2nd amendment rights), (2) preserving state sovereignty and the power to declare marshall rule, (3) getting the government off of big businesses backs to allow them corporate handouts and bailouts with the hopes that benefits will trickle down, (4) reduced spending on people (taxpaying consumers) - with respect to housing, education, medical care - with a greater focus on profits and wealth at the taxpaying consumer's expense, (5) low Taxes for the Wealthy with more hopes of trickle down benefits (even for those who make capital gains by exploiting the distressed loss of others in a greed driven recession, (6) controlling women's bodies (7) keeping black folks in their place as the founding fathers intended in the original constitution, which counted Blacks as only 3/5ths human and not entitled to the rights of citizenship, and generally (8) dictating the destinies of others, often to their detriment. The Democratic machine unraveled with the Tennessee Waltz scandal, carefully timed to be launched at the onset of the young Ford's race for the senate. Using Ethics as a wedge, the GOP took over the state for the first time since reconstruction and have been on a roll every since, while thoughtfully, deliberately and intentionally structuring policies and proposed legislation as if carefully placing the stones of a solid foundation. Democrats weren't even aware of what wind had hit them or where it was coming from. Hence, they did know to put up a fight. At this point, Democrat support is unnecessary and irrelevant; they are virtually powerless in this environment where the ruling party is whistling Dixie; and training 10 year old kids to not only re-enact the Civil War; but to engage in urban hunting, while staying downwind, keeping an eye on the bedroom of "Mr. Big."

By: Rasputin72 on 11/12/12 at 1:02

Bellecat........I think the reason that people in this state vote for the "neanderthals" is because the "neanderthals" are a better option.

Secondly,voting for the "neanderthals" is a vote for keeping people like you responsible for the mess you have made of your own life. The "neanderthals" do not want to contribute a dime to subsidizing your failure.

Intelligence, I think is a word that is used very loosely in your camp.

By: Ask01 on 11/13/12 at 5:07

Bellecat, the GOP has discovered the magic formula to distract their voter base from the important issues.

As long as they are able to make issues around God, guns, abortion, creationism, and other issues appealing to the supposed moral superiority of the right wing, the simple minded are more than willing to follow.

They, "God's Own Party," as they view themselves, will hold sway until their base realizes they are but cogs in the machine, disposable at a whim. Eventually, after enough have experienced the "compassionate conservatism" of being unemployed and, while seeking a job treated as dirt by those who are employed, all the while hearing of extravagant excesses in corporate America as they struggle, there will be a backlash.

When that happens, it will be ugly.

Until then, we will be stuck in the 20th, or perhaps even 19th century.

By: Rocket99 on 11/13/12 at 8:35

Unfortunatley, the majority of current Republicans think it's their duty to push their version of Christian religon down everyone's throats. They also want to kill the environment and turn us into the Wild West. A gun on every hip and in every car. That will surely make us safer.

They also,want all the perceived free stuff from government but can never publically admit it.

The Healthcare Reform Act is a good attempt in controlling the high cost of health care in this country and trying to make sure everyone has access to it.

There's been a lot of noise from Republicans about moving to Canada or Australia if Obama was reelected. Well, both of those countries have socialized medicine and a lot more strigent gun control than we do. So, go ahead and move to a country that already has in place what you accuse our newly elected president of wanting.

As far as on the state level. depending on how these politicians act will will depend on if they survive in two years or less. The party in power may not be the same when the next election cycle comes around. All depends on how well they play together with everyone and how it directly affects the citizens of our great state. The country as a whole appears to be moving forward while Tennessee seems to want to move backward.