Tea party seeks to crash Tennessee House speaker race

photo House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, talks to a House member as the 108th General Assembly is reconvened Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Nashville.
photo Rick Womick

NASHVILLE -- Traditionally an insider's affair, the contest for the Tennessee state House's most powerful post -- the speakership -- has been anything but that this year.

With Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, challenging Republican Speaker Beth Harwell in Wednesday's GOP Caucus election, various tea party groups, anti-Common Core activists and the Tennessee Firearms Association have been bombarding Republican representatives with emails and phone calls in support of Womick.

Just last week, the Tennessee Republican Assembly and the heads of the Chattanooga and Nashville tea parties entered the fray, praising Womick as a "true patriot" and "true conservative" and arguing that his elevation to speaker "would further the true intention of Tennessee voters as expressed in the recent elections."

"The Coalition believes that this level of support should be reflected by a Speaker as conservative as the voters who have made this possible," the group said in its news release.

Efforts to reach Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West on Monday were unsuccessful.

Harwell is seen as having the upper hand in the 73-member GOP Caucus contest as she seeks a third two-year term. Since Democrats have only 26 seats, the real race is among Republicans.

Womick helped lead a House rebellion last legislative session against Common Core standards and has denounced Republican Gov. Bill Haslam as a "self-serving autocrat."

The sometimes-fiery Womick also has attacked now-departing Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. And he has accused Haslam's chief of staff, Mark Cate, of having tried unsuccessfully to recruit GOP candidates to run against him in his House district primary last summer.

"That is totally crazy," Cate said in an interview. "I had no involvement at all. This is crazy. I have no idea why he's picked us out, but it's totally untrue."

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Womick has also accused Harwell of having "stood by and watched" as Cate and other Haslam staffers targeted five other Republican incumbents through a newly created political action committee called Advance PAC.

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, a freshman representative elected on Nov. 7, is among many House Republicans getting emails urging him to vote for Womick.

"While I agree with many of the things the tea party proposes, at the same time we have to realize that it's because of the so-called 'establishment' Republicans like Beth Harwell and Bill Haslam" that his own Southeast Tennessee district "has done so well" with major industries locating in the area, Howell said.

Howell said while he's received "a number" of emails and texts from tea party, 9/12 and members of other groups, "I've received no more than two from people within my district urging me to vote for Rep. Womick."

The lawmaker, who isn't saying how he'll vote Wednesday, noted that 76 percent of self-identified tea party supporters expressed approval of Haslam in a new Vanderbilt University poll released last week.

Caucus elections are conducted by secret ballot and in recent years caucus leaders haven't even released results. Some lawmakers say there may be an effort on Wednesday to at least release vote tallies.

Although rare, non-lawmakers' involvement in leadership races is not unheard of. In 1986, business groups battled trial lawyers and labor groups over the Senate Democratic Caucus nomination of then-Speaker John Wilder. Wilder, a conservative businessman and farmer, lost his caucus' nomination but put together a successful coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans that won him the speaker's race on the Senate floor.

The Tennessee Republican Party, however, has bylaws calling for the expulsion of GOP lawmakers who don't support their nominee on the floor.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-424-0484 or asher@timesfreepress.com.

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