Lawmakers seek takeover of US Senate nominations

Friday, March 29, 2013 at 12:21pm
Updated: 5:25 p.m.

During the last eight U.S. Senate primaries in Tennessee, an average of about 686,000 people have voted in each contest. Under a Republican proposal advancing in the state Legislature, the number picking nominees would drop to 132.

The bill, set for a state Senate vote on Monday, would shift that nominating power from primary voters to state lawmakers of either party.

"This is a way we can actually choose the candidate and make them more responsible," said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who supports the plan. "The federal government is completely broken, and there's got to be something to get their attention. And this could be it."

Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, the measure's main sponsor, says it is aimed at returning Tennessee closer to the system used before 1913, when state lawmakers directly appointed U.S. senators. That corruption-marred system was replaced with direct election by the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Niceley said his bill — which would apply only to primaries and not to general elections — is based on an initiative by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. A spokesman for the conservative think tank did not return a message seeking comment.

Niceley is also a major proponent of holding popular elections for state Supreme Court justices in Tennessee. His bill would go into effect after next year's election, meaning it wouldn't affect Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's efforts to be re-nominated for another term.

The measure was advanced to the Senate floor on a 7-1 vote, with no debate in committee this week. But there are signs that not everyone is on board.

"Democrats believe in the people picking the politicians, instead of the politicians picking their own," said state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron.

And not all Republicans are keen on the idea, either. Chris Devaney, the chairman of the state GOP, acknowledged that many conservatives want to do away with the 17th Amendment, but said that the bill wouldn't accomplish that.

"I am concerned that the outcomes of such legislation may not achieve the desired effect of fixing what ails Washington," he said in a statement.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said the bill would run counter to a century of movement toward greater participation in the political process.

Oppenheimer said the change would be perceived as "a move of taking political power away from the people and moving it to an elite group of elected officials."

"It would smack of being elite, boss-controlled and anti-democratic," he said. "And potentially corrupting."

Participation in Senate primaries has fluctuated over the years, depending on whether there were seriously contested races for an open seat, or races in which an incumbent was cruising toward re-election.

An analysis of the eight Senate elections over the last 18 years shows an average of 686,000 people voted in primaries.

The high was 1 million voters in the 2002 primary, which led to the contest between Alexander and Democrat Bob Clement. The low was in 2000, when about 377,000 votes were cast to determine the general election matchup between then-Sen. Bill Frist and little-known Democrat Jeff Clark.

Last year's primary turnout of 618,000 was unusually high for Sen. Bob Corker's successful re-election effort, largely driven by the Republican's active campaigning despite little serious opposition. Corker won nearly 390,000 votes, or 85 percent, in the GOP primary.

Contentious Senate primaries on the Republican side have been memorable for their viciousness. In 1994, a "six pack" of Republican candidates was led by Frist, a Nashville physician with little political experience, and Corker, a former state finance commissioner who would go on to become mayor of Chattanooga.

The Frist campaign labeled Corker "the Chattanooga boohoo" and "rotten pond scum." Meanwhile, the Corker camp called Frist a "cat killer" using stray cats to practice transplants during medical school. Frist defeated Corker 44 percent to 32 percent and went on to win the general election.

Frist's retirement from the Senate 12 years later drew a three-man field led by Corker. It featured pointed attacks from his two main GOP rivals that led the only Democrat in the race, then-U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., to liken the trio to the Three Stooges.

Corker ultimately won the grueling primary, but appeared exhausted after the strenuous race for the nomination, which opened an opportunity for Ford to close the gap. He ran a close race until the general election. Corker ended up winning by fewer than 3 percentage points.

Ramsey, who finished a distant third in the Republican gubernatorial primary of 2010, told reporters this week that the bill's prospects for passage are about 50-50.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick called the proposal "intriguing," but said he wasn't certain there would be enough time to flesh out the details in the weeks remaining before the end of the legislative session.

"It would keep people from having to be a multi-millionaire to run in the primaries," said McCormick, R-Chattanooga. "This would open it up to more people."

But McCormick conceded that other factors might also play into whether a change should be made.

"The people might also want to be able to vote rather than have the Legislature decide," he said.

17 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 3/29/13 at 10:54

What! What has happened to" We the People?" This takeover of the GOP in TN has gone nuts. We are no longer living in 1913, but 2013. I want a say in who my Senators and others people repesenting me are. Does the 17th Amendment not matter in TN?

By: Ask01 on 3/29/13 at 11:47

I thought the GOP was supposed to be a champion of less government and preserving the sanctity of the people's rights. Now, the Republican Party seeks to remove the burden of nominating candidates from the people and take the task on their broad shoulders.

What's next?

Will they decide we the people cannot be trusted with the vote and decide to just name representatives for us?

Next election, we need to clean out the legislature.

Elect some middle class working folks to give the middle finger to professional politicians.

By: courier37027 on 3/29/13 at 12:08

Basically this is how senators were elected prior to the Seventeenth Amendment, by state legislatures rather than popular vote. While criticized as a non-referendum process, this is still far ahead of how Supreme Court justices and cabinet members are chosen.

By: courier37027 on 3/29/13 at 12:09

Might be worth a try to get lobbyists, an ignorant voting populace, smear campaigns, promises of free cell phones, non-issues out of process.

By: yogiman on 3/29/13 at 2:54

True, Courier. In the days before the 17th amendment the senators were picked by the state legislature and if they didn't go by the 'states' orders they were brought home. The House was voted in by the people and I think that was the best routine back then.

It only favored the federal government (because they could then control the Senate) and the members of the Senate for their personal welfare when the 17th amendment was passed.

The state had better control and better position on arguments with the federal government than they do today. The federal government has taken control, and that includes the senate that used to represent the state that appointed them instead of the federal branch.

The states today walk around with their hands out. The federal government has taken control.

By: ancienthighway on 3/29/13 at 3:11

I could actually support this initiative, provided a minimum of 2 members of each party are nominated for the people then to vote on. That's not just Republicans and Democrats, but any other party with representation in the Senate. I can see without this, the Senate would nominate only one, maybe two candidates of the "ruling" party, with no hope of anyone else entering the fray.

By: riversafety on 3/29/13 at 3:41

Wow! Interesting concept. I would like to hear the logical arguments for and against the idea not just the knee-jerk commentaries.
Since we mentioned knee-jerk commentary, I can see how legislative nominations can prevent popular quacks who deliver good sound bites but have no clue about the big picture from getting to Washington and being overtaken by the inside-the-beltway power brokers. I also see how a corrupt political machine on the state level could distort the procedure, too.
Again... interesting concept.

By: yogiman on 3/29/13 at 6:52

I can't see the state picking who the citizens should vote for, riversafety. I could see where it was better when the state picked the senators to represent the state. We then had the senators representing the states that put them there and the House as the representing the people as a whole.

But when the senators were placed on the ballots, the only difference between the Senate and the House was what they could bring to the floor. They were both merely just representatives of the people.

By: WmTharonChandler on 3/30/13 at 4:56

The people of the United States have lost everything over the past 20 years and if they now lose their ability to nominate a Senator then it was already lost. All we have to choose from are the store bought encumbents and they just pay each other anyway. A real man can not get his voice in there and no peace loving honest man would want to be in there, as it is or has become . give Ceaser that which has his picture on it . peace

By: yogiman on 3/30/13 at 7:12

I still believe the states should have the control of the Senate like they originally did. They lost the power over the federal government when they gave up their Senate seats. There's little difference between the House and Senate seats now.

By: harviele on 3/30/13 at 7:22

When the Republicans say they want less government, what they really mean is they want less democratic government. They want to make this first step toward making a power grab. Of course they have to change the 17th amendment first. I suppose the best thing to do is never trust the government when it says it is doing something for the good. Usually the only good they are concerned with is doing what is best for the people who own them

By: Ask01 on 3/30/13 at 7:54

At the risk of running afoul of Godwin's Law, I believe similar tactics of the GOP were used when the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) came to power in 1930's Germany.

The NSDAP sought to preserve and expand their control by limiting access by political opponents. Sadly, coming at a time when Germany was suffering from massive unemployment, crippling war reparations resulting from The Great War, (aka The War To End All Wars,) and general social unrest, desperate people were ready to cling to anyone offering a ray of hope.

We all know how that ended.

I am more in favor of the way history ran it's course in a nation to the west. The peasants, weary of being trod underfoot by the wealthy and self proclaimed upperclass, revolted. I don't advocate the horrific bloodshed which accompanied the French Revolution, believing a ballot box revolt to be sufficient.

It is time for a Tennessee Revolution at the polls to bring the state back to sanity.

By: yogiman on 3/30/13 at 9:37

I believe it's time for a national revolution, Ask01. Congress has degraded we citizens when they ignore the oath they took when they were elected to office by not assuring everyone running for the President's office is in the race legally.

I'm still waiting for proof I'm wrong on the current situation.

By: tomba1 on 3/31/13 at 10:27

Senate State & Local Govt Committee 3/26/2013 =

scroll down to agenda item # 8 SB0471 to skip the rest

Based on Sen. Niceley's brief remarks to the Committee, I see no merit for this legislation at all. I was looking for some electorate breakdown or problem that this bill is addressing, or a matter of public well being or rights infringement requiring the legislation, or some fiscal issues which may be improved by passage of this bill. But after seeing the presentation twice and hearing no discussion or questions from the committee, I concluded that this matter, for the citizens of Tennessee, is merely a train ride back 100 years to a world long since put behind us in the annals of political history.

If We the People choose to elect an idiot to represent us, that is OUR right and it is not their right to deny us that. It is quite probable that we have done so in the past but, surprise, we have survived. The voters should not be restricted to voting for only those candidates who, first and foremost, have been deemed acceptable and beholden to government politicians and lobbyists. This move sounds mafia-like to me, rooted in an antiquated political system from 100 years ago, which was addressed by the 17th Constitutional amendment. Sen. Niceley made that point very very clear in his remarks that this IS the intent of this legislation. He was most poignant with his closing remark "if we don't have the nerve to do this, we don't deserve to be sitting here". Perhaps he should have omitted either one of the "don't"s and his charge would been more appropriate.

This train needs to be derailed before it becomes a train wreck.

By: govskeptic on 4/1/13 at 7:12

If there's been any bill this session more divisive than this one, I'm be shocked to
know about it, although a great possibility. For the State with by far the fewest
statewide races or office holders (3) this limits it primary wise to just one. Does
Ramsey and Nicely think these extreme lame reasons being given will actually
fool the public and "Especially" the Republican voters. It's a power grab to let
the Establishment of both parties have more control over who winds up in the
final race than they already do. Spirited primary races are much more productive
for democracy than this nothing but elitist bill being presented. One had better
contact both their State Senator and Representative of both parties to reflect
their views. I only hate general media coverage has started in the last day or

This bill and others like it are exactly what our legislators pass in the last few
days of many sessions before the public knows what they've been hit with.
So sad, yet not unexpected.

By: davideosborne on 4/2/13 at 11:10

I support it, and repeal of the 17th Amendment. It fits with our system of checks and balances and gives the States more power in the Federal system.

By: CoyoteCrawford on 4/3/13 at 10:38

Big Republican Soviet government.