While the airwaves are filled with noise about the race for governor of Tennessee there is a secret election in progress of almost equal importance. The votes will be cast by secret ballot in January and even the winner will not know how the electors voted.
House Speaker Beth Harwell stepped down in order to run for governor. Her successor will likely be either Speaker Pro Tem Curtis Johnson or Majority Leader Glen Casada. Johnson is from Clarksville and Casada is from Williamson County, so the next speaker will likely be from Middle Tennessee.
Legislation does not get to the governor’s desk without the speaker of the House’s stamp of approval. The House’s budget subcommittee decides what gets funded and what gets punted. The speaker decides who is on that committee, as well as all the others. The speaker names all the committee chairs.
But if the selection of the next speaker isn’t until next January why the campaign now?
There will be 23 new House members. Almost 25 percent of House members chose not to seek re-election. One of the primary political duties of the House speaker is to raise money, to get members of the party elected to keep a majority. As a practical matter, when the speaker helps a member get elected or re-elected they are inclined to vote to keep the speaker in the job.
With the speaker’s chair vacant, Johnson and Casada are raising money, contributing to GOP candidates and soliciting support for the job. They aren’t just wooing new members, but incumbents as well. Speaker candidates do not know if they will get the job until the results of the secret ballot are known. And since the ballots are secret a speaker candidate can think the votes are locked up, but then have some of his votes switch at the last minute. I suspect that both Casada and Johnson have some of the same names on their lists of supporters.
Over in the Senate only three members quit, but it’s getting a little weird there. It is an open secret that Majority Leader Mark Norris of Memphis has been considered for a federal judgeship. That opens up a race among Republican members to be the new majority leader. But weeks and months have passed and the appointment has not come through. Norris is considered a very good choice for a judgeship and the hold-up seems odd. One theory holds that Norris is being vetted because he has carried so many bills. But as majority leader it was Norris’s duty to carry all the governor’s bills. He also represents one of the state’s major metropolitan areas.
Meanwhile, it appears that candidates to replace Norris as majority leader include state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood, and state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. Johnson is chair of the powerful Commerce Committee so in the event he gets majority leader members are jockeying to chair the committee that handles all the business bills and the corresponding business lobby campaign contributions.
So, House members Johnson and Casada are traveling the state, raising money, contributing to campaigns and running an election under the radar. And Sen. Norris is waiting.
A current television ad features Gov. Bill Haslam talking about the good things that have happened under his leadership and pointing out that Bill Lee will continue the course and move the state forward. That is exactly the campaign that Randy Boyd should have run.
National reporters and columnists keep talking about how President Trump is so popular in Tennessee, he carried all but three counties, etc. A couple of things to keep in mind. Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, a divisive figure much despised by the state’s electorate. A lot of that vote was not pro-Trump, it was anti-Clinton. There was no doubt that Trump favored Congresswoman Diane Black in the gubernatorial race and Black’s campaign had the clips to prove it. Black came in third.
National coverage of former Gov. Phil Bredesen often mentions that he carried all 95 counties in his re-election bid. A couple of things. The big Republican donors and activists went in the tank for Bredesen that year and a no-name state senator with no money didn’t stand a chance. They also might mention that Bredesen lost his first bid for Nashville mayor. He ran against Congressman Bob Clement and lost. He ran for governor against Don Sundquist and lost.
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