Tennessee Republican lawmakers face challenges from within

photo Tennessee state representative Jim Cobb
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - After winning a decades-long struggle for control of the Tennessee General Assembly in 2010, many Republican incumbents are discovering a downside to their success this year.

Twenty-three lawmakers are fending off election challenges -- not so much from Democrats as from fellow Republicans.

Twenty of the 64 House Republicans -- almost a third -- face intra-party challenges from opponents of varying degrees of ability, support and financial resources.

In Southeast Tennessee, Republican Reps. Richard Floyd, of Chattanooga; Jim Cobb, of Spring City; and Kevin Brooks and Eric Watson, both of Cleveland, face contests in the Aug. 2 primary.

In the Senate, three of the 20 incumbent Republicans face GOP challengers.

None is in Southeast Tennessee, although there is a free-for-all in Senate District 10 in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

The scramble was set off when Republicans drew new district lines to favor their party and incumbent Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat, decided to give up the seat and run for Chattanooga mayor.

The House leadership's top priorities this year are keeping their already-elected colleagues in office and picking up more seats for the GOP.

"Certainly we want our incumbents to win," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

"I think we've stuck to what the voters wanted us to stick to, and we've governed responsibly and I think we'll be rewarded by voters on election day," he said.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said several things are spurring such challenges.

New boundaries drawn in redistricting solidified the parties' holds in many areas, but also gave many people representatives they don't know very well.

Little-known lawmakers are more vulnerable. And in districts where one party dominates, whoever wins the primary likely will win the general election, Oppenheimer said.

And, he said, "you have people who are being 'tea-partied.'"

The populist tea party movement, with its emphasis on constitutional originalism, limited government and low taxes, has shaken up politics since 2009 and is fully engaged in a number of U.S. Senate and House races across the country.

Tea party-fueled candidacies are going after incumbents "who may be very conservative Republicans and who might not vote much differently from where the challenge is," Oppenheimer noted.

Ben Cunningham with the Tennessee Tax Revolt, a founder of the Nashville Tea Party, said the groups want to give voters a choice.

"Many officeholders tend to equate [incumbency] with entitlement if they've been there a long time," Cunningham said.

Cunningham was unsure how many of the Republican incumbents' challengers are tea party adherents.

Help from Haslam

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is already helping some GOP incumbents who have primary opponents.

He is scheduled to be at Brooks' scheduled campaign kickoff Monday. The three-term lawmaker, now assistant majority leader, faces opposition in his District 24 reelection bid from Jack Epperson, pastor of Fairview Worship Center.

Epperson, a one-time Cleveland policeman and a TVA retiree, said he intends to self-fund his bid.

Haslam said he intends to help Republican incumbents who have supported his agenda.

Last week, the Mountain Press, of Sevierville, Tenn., quoted Haslam spokesman David Smith saying the governor is offering his "full support" to Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville.

Both men face serious opposition. Overbey was recently attacked by the Tennessee Conservatives Fund, a coalition of tea party groups including the Chattanooga Tea Party.

In a news release, Conservatives Fund Executive Director Eric Stamper members are mostly interested in the general election.

But, he added, "some primary races have ... offer a real opportunity to replace a badly behaving Republican with a great conservative."

He singled out Overbey.

The Conservatives Fund's chairman, Susan Lynn, is trying to topple House District 57 incumbent Rep. Linda Elam, R-Mount Juliet.

And in District 45, GOP Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart is being challenged by Courtney Rogers, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and past chairman of Sumner County's tea party.

Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris has repeatedly attacked Maggart repeatedly for not supporting the association's "guns in parking lots" bill.

It would have required most businesses, K-12 schools and higher education institutions, as well as government, to let people with handgun-carry permits store any firearms in locked vehicles on public or private parking lots.

Closer to home

Cleveland's Epperson said he decided to run against Brooks after reading the U.S. Constitution and Federalist Papers and "seeing the way government was going."

"I think they never envisioned these career politicians" who are "just growing government ... [to] make their jobs more secure," he said.

Epperson said he's not a tea party member but agrees with the party's views on limited government and fiscal matters.

Brooks said he is hardly a career politician as he finishes up six years in office and seeks another term. He and other Republicans point to cuts they made this year in taxes and state programs.

Epperson's remarks, he said, "show how out of touch with the Republican majority he truly is. I have a full-time job in Cleveland, every day. I've never considered myself a full-time politician."

In District 31, Cobb faces Dayton insurance agency owner Ron Travis. Travis did not return a message left on his office phone Friday.

In House District 22, David Kimbro of Cleveland is challenging Watson. Kimbro, who said he once taught school in Dallas, Texas, but now works as a line cook, said he believes all incumbents should have an opponent. He said he intends to conduct most of his campaign via the Internet.

In House District 27, perennial candidate Basil Marceaux Sr., of Soddy-Daisy, is running against Rep. Floyd.

In the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, Marceaux became an Internet sensation and subject of national late-night comedy shows for his pledges to ban gold fringes on U.S. flags and halt police from making traffic stops, which he said was slavery.

Efforts to reach Marceaux were unsuccessful.

Democrats' problems

Republicans this year drew district lines that squeezed six Democratic lawmakers into three districts. Now they are running against each other.

Among them are Chattanooga Democratic Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors. Republicans put much of Favors' district, including her home, into Brown's District 28. The other two incumbent-on-incumbent contests are in Memphis.

Also, three Democratic incumbents in Nashville and Memphis face Democratic challengers.