NASHVILLE — At the Tennessee Republican Party's annual fundraiser over the weekend, the overarching theme was unity for a newly dominant party that towers over the state political scene.
"Republicans are united," state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney, of Chattanooga, told 1,000 or so party stalwarts gathered in a Nashville hotel ballroom Saturday night for the Statesmen's Dinner. "We're united in this room; we're united statewide."
But the GOP's big tent shows signs of fraying, with serious intraparty challenges in two congressional districts and as many as 10 state legislative seats in Aug. 2 primaries.
The National Rifle Association has directed $75,000 in independent expenditures toward the defeat of state House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, in the primary over a gun issue.
The group also is critical of other top legislative leaders.
As many as eight county Republican parties have criticized Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who's not up for re-election this year, for not being conservative enough or over his personnel policies, including hiring a Muslim woman attorney from Waverly, Tenn., in the state Department of Economic Development.
But speaking to reporters before the dinner, which raised more than $500,000, Devaney downplayed the primary challenges as growing pains.
"I think it shows the strength in the Republican Party," Devaney said. "Ten years ago we didn't have near this many primaries, but we also didn't have this growing Republican majority that we have in the General Assembly ... [with] a Republican governor."
"If you're going to grow, you're going to have more primaries," Devaney said.
He characterized the criticism from the county-level GOP parties as coming from a "very small group of people" in mostly small organizations.
"We have 95 counties, and the vast majorities of these county chairmen, as I've been talking to them, are not focused on some of this discord going on with some of these guys," Devaney said.
Haslam was the lone top GOP elected official who didn't attend the event. Last week, Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor had a long-standing commitment to attend a wedding. He said Haslam's absence was not connected to the criticism.
State Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said any divisions will close after the primaries, when the general election campaign picks up.
"It's all in the family," he said, laughing. "Nobody thought Mitt Romney would be able to pull the party together as quickly as he's done with a brutal primary. Our focus, you're going to find out, our focus is not going to be each other. It's going to be Barack Obama" and winning state and congressional seats.
Even the choice of the dinner's keynote speaker -- former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential nominee Mike Huckabee -- raised some eyebrows.
Huckabee supported U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., in the 3rd Congressional District 2010 GOP primary. This year, the freshman Chattanooga lawmaker faces spirited challenges from Weston Wamp, of Chattanooga, and Scottie Mayfield, of Athens.
Last week, Huckabee appeared in a new Fleischmann television ad, and they were set to tour the 3rd District before Fleischmann had to cancel so he could get back to Washington for an unexpected vote.
In a statement two days before Huckabee's speech, Wamp scoffed that "Mike Huckabee's credibility in Tennessee's 3rd District is questionable based on his long-standing relationship with Chuck Fleischmann's chief of staff and political operative, Chip Saltsman."
He said Huckabee's "public support of Chuck Fleischmann is a prime example of the 'back-scratching' that is part of the problem in Washington."
Saltsman, a former state GOP chairman, was national manager of Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign.
Neither Wamp nor Mayfield attended the Statesmen's Dinner.
Huckabee, now a talk show host on Fox News, devoted most of his speech to criticizing President Obama and praising presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Huckabee did urge attendees to "enthusiastically" make sure "Mitt Romney is our next president, [U.S. Sen.] Bob Corker returns to the Senate [and] these outstanding members of your congressional delegation."
But he didn't mention any congressman by name.
Republican Lou Ann Zelenik, who is battling to defeat U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., in the 6th District primary, said she didn't take any offense.
"He's just bringing his great inspiring message here, and I love him," she said.
Devaney said he invited Huckabee because he won the 2008 GOP presidential primary in Tennessee, was available to speak and is a popular host on Fox News.
"We had our thing booked first and they [Fleischmann campaign] decided to do, I guess, this endorsement tour," Devaney said. "But ours was booked first. No, there wasn't any coordination."
Fleischmann said he had nothing to do with Huckabee's invitation to speak at the dinner. He said he doesn't see his rivals running because they object to his conservative stances on fiscal and social issues.
"I think these folks want to be in Congress because they want to be in Congress," he said.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "my primary opponents are very, very praiseworthy and laudatory of my record. That's the thing that really surprised me. When Mr. Mayfield went out and said, 'My gosh, I can't even disagree with a single one of Mr. Fleischmann's votes,' I said, thank you. I almost put one of my stickers on him."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...