Pair of high-profile primary fights affirms power of Diane Black, NRA

Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 9:05pm

Debra Maggart must have seen the writing on the wall.

The House Republican Caucus chair apparently hadn’t planned to hold a rally-like watch party to celebrate what would have been a hard fought victory. Instead she was with just a few close friends on election night when she called to concede the House District 45 primary to Courtney Rogers, who would go on to win easily by a margin of 14 percent.

Maggart had been on the wrong end of the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund. The nation’s largest gun rights lobbying organization lent its political muscle to only three candidates in Tennessee — Rogers, along with two incumbents in the state House, Tony Shipley and Joshua Evans. All three won.

Shipley survived by just 11 votes, while Evans and Rogers rode landslides. But it was Rogers’ victory that seemed to confirm the NRA’s role as kingmaker in state politics — and its ability to punish those who stray. Whatever else might have factored into the upset, that looks to be the primary takeaway for legislators across the state, and perhaps the nation.

“Legislators will be falling all over themselves to make amends and curry favor,” one high-ranking Republican staffer told The City Paper Thursday night. “The tea party and Andy Miller will claim credit, but this was NRA, pure and simple. [They’re] in the driver’s seat.”

John Harris, a consistently vocal Maggart critic who contributed to Rogers’ campaign personally as well as through his Tennessee Firearms Association, had a similar observation. Speaking from the Rogers victory party on election night, he said the NRA’s money was “specifically intended to be an example” for elected officials.

“The Second Amendment is the best litmus test of what a true conservative is,” he said. “If you won’t stand up and support the Second Amendment, you’re not really a constitutional conservative on other issues.”

The NRA sent a similar message last month when it sent a survey to legislative candidates in both parties, asking whether they “would follow the demands of party leadership even if they run contrary to the NRA’s legislative agenda.” In light of their scorched-earth strategy for dealing with Maggart’s perceived political indiscretion, one assumes some might be revising their answers.

The aforementioned Miller, who was among the hosts of a fundraiser for Rogers, had a less successful night in another race in which he was far more invested. Miller, a Nashville-based venture capitalist and former Lou Ann Zelenik staffer, poured more than $260,000 into Zelenik’s repeat challenge against U.S. Rep. Diane Black, by way of two super-PACs that he funded entirely.

Black eventually won by more than a 2-to-1 margin. A message left for Miller had not been returned by press time.

Miller’s expensive backing of Zelenik was just one of the race’s many mini-controversies, which seemed to boil over almost daily in the final weeks.

The bitter feud between the two candidates was evident on election night, when Black, who had apparently not received the customary phone call of concession from her opponent, was informed live on WSMV-TV that Zelenik had just given her concession speech on the air.

But perhaps most noteworthy was the failed attempt by Zelenik — and Miller — to make the election a referendum on Black’s conservatism. In 2010, Zelenik challenged Black on her 12-year record in the state legislature, primarily on the grounds that Black had not been vigilant enough in opposing the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. That effort seemed to be at least partially effective because — with help, no doubt, from the vote-splitting presence of a third candidate in state Sen. Jim Tracy — Zelenik lost by less than 300 votes.

But in the two years since, Black’s record in Washington has been very conservative to most observers. In lieu of solid evidence of Black’s backsliding, ads from Zelenik and Miller’s PACs hit the incumbent with the specious claim that she had “voted to fund Obamacare” and criticized her for agreeing to the 11th-hour bipartisan agreement that raised the debt ceiling.

As a result, a race that already had the makings of a nasty affair became focused on the two personalities taking part in it. Back-and-forth attack ads featuring caricatured representations of the respective candidates flooded local TVs during the Olympics, while on the ground, the campaigns traded charges that the other was “crazy” or “delusional.”

The rematch became more personal than political, and on those terms, the voters chose Black overwhelmingly.