If the result of the recent special election in District 62 is the bellwether, Tennessee is in for many years of Republican rule.
The state Senate is already solidly Republican. The state House is moving that way, and unless conventional wisdom is very wrong, we will have a Republican governor come 2011.
While the improbable could still become the probable, the likelihood is that the Republican Party will be the dominant party in Tennessee for the foreseeable future. If Republicans maintain their majority, they will have the ability to redraw legislative and congressional districts, relegating to minority status the Democratic Party that once ruled with an iron fist.
The question is not whether there will be Republican rule, but rather what kind. One-party leadership doesn't mean there aren't any bold and important fights along the lines of ideology and policy. It just means that those fights evolve from partisan skirmishes to intraparty civil war.
Republicans will run Tennessee but which Republicans hold power and in what capacity will make a huge difference. Traditionally, Tennessee Republicans have talked a conservative game, but there's a difference between being conservative — adjective —and being a conservative — noun.
A movement conservative, for example, has never won a statewide primary and gone on to win a general election. There have been congressional members (Ed Bryant, Marsha Blackburn), but every time conservatives have stepped up for statewide office they have either been defeated in the primary (Bryant) or in the general (Jim Bryson, Van Hilleary).
Some consider Rep. Blackburn an extreme member of the congressional delegation. If former Tennessee Republican Party chair Robin Smith gets elected in the Third District, Blackburn will have an ideological soulmate with her in Congress.
A third woman of a similar conservative stripe, Lou Ann Zelenik, is currently running for Rep. Bart Gordon's seat. If the Republicans wield the redistricting pen as expected, who knows what opportunities will open up for conservatives.
Our state legislature already is riddled with conservative firebrands. In fact, with potential senators Stacey Campfield, Susan Lynn and Brian Kelsey and the moderate conscience of the Senate, Randy McNally, moving to the right, the state Senate is not only thoroughly Republican but is on the cusp of becoming an almost radically conservative legislative body.
It wouldn't be too much to say that the statesmen of the Tennessee Republican Party, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, through sheer neglect have allowed this slow creep of state-rooted ideological conservatism. Alexander's political machine has dipped its big toe into state races only very rarely. The moderate Howard Baker-type conservatism that had long defined Tennessee Republicanism has been slowly dying, and the harder stuff has been growing in its place.
The moderates seem to be trying to rectify that with Bill Haslam's gubernatorial campaign. Haslam is a true moderate — more so than either Corker or Alexander. Haslam is also much worse at cloaking his discomfort with rigid right-wing ideology. He seems reluctant to utter even the most cursory red meat rhetoric that conservatives want to hear.
If Haslam is victorious, he would have to contend not only with former opponent Ron Ramsey serving as lieutenant governor, but also with an increasingly reactionary legislature looking to move the ideological ball further down the field.
It'll be one-party rule alright — but hardly a harmonious march toward right-wing nirvana.
The big question is how much a Gov. Haslam would be like our current governor. Would he be just an anomalously successful figure, an outlier in his own party, or would he work to bring moderate Republicans like himself into state political power? Would he navigate Tennessee politics like a loner or would he try to transform the party in his own image.
More than once in recent months we've heard the clamor for a truly moderate Republican leader to stand against the ideological extremism enveloping the party. Corker and Alexander meet the moderate test, but they don't seem to have much desire to wage ideological warfare.
When push comes to shove, both Corker and Alexander will mouth the platitudes necessary to placate the Right. Haslam could be different. Phil Bredesen and Haslam are said to have similar politics, but might they also prove to have similar temperaments? Would Haslam stand against the rising tide of GOP conservatism and speak his mind despite the grassroots, or would he appease them to accomplish his legislative agenda?
With conservative purists becoming increasingly emboldened nationally and locally, it will be interesting to watch how Halsam carries himself as a candidate and, if the assumptions stay the assumptions, as governor of Tennnessee.