Haslam prefers White House stay out of Tennessee GOP governor primary

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Gov. Bill Haslam speaks to press following the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - While President Donald Trump has jumped into a number of open Republican gubernatorial primary contests by endorsing candidates in states such as Georgia, Gov. Bill Haslam says he hopes the president continues to steer clear of the Tennessee GOP governor primary battle here.

"I don't think it's helpful for the White House to be involved in primaries," the term-limited governor told reporters Thursday, adding that in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he and the group are staying out of open GOP primaries and asked the White House back in February to do likewise.

"I had a conversation with them back in February, them being the White House, saying we're going to have 36 governors races," Haslam said. "They're going to be very competitive. We would like it if y'all would not get involved. We just think that's best. We're not going to get involved as [the governors association] unless we have an incumbent governor. If there's an incumbent governor, we welcome your involvement."

Asked if he was frustrated Trump hasn't stayed out of GOP gubernatorial contests in some states, the governor said, "Well, they're the White House. They can do what they want. But like I said, we would rather them not."

He said he believes there is "good reason for that in any mid-term election," noting the November general elections "are difficult. And we want to make certain again that everybody has as much firepower as possible for those competitive elections."

In Georgia on Tuesday, Secretary of State Brian Kemp beat Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the GOP primary in what Kemp called a "clear, convincing victory." He credited Trump for having "poured gasoline in the fire" that fueled his victory.

While not overtly endorsing anyone in the Tennessee GOP primary, Trump has on several occasions praised one of the four major candidates, U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin. As he signed the federal tax cut legislation, Trump noted, "I called Diane Black and you came through Diane."

And at a Nashville rally earlier this year to boost presumptive U.S. Senate GOP nominee Marsha Blackburn in her expected fall contest with Democrat and former governor Phil Bredesen, the president also gave Black a shout-out, saying, "Good luck, Diane."

Black has stuck closely by the president on several of Trump's favored policies on issues such as illegal immigration and a border wall.

Last weekend, she was in Cleveland when Vice President Mike Pence, a friend of Haslam's, came during a visit that later included a Blackburn fundraiser in Chattanooga.

The vice president lavished praise on Black for her "great leadership" on supporting tax cuts as well as pushing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, The Associated Press reported. Pence also referred to Black as "a champion for life" for her stand against abortion.

But there was no specific endorsement.

Black is vying with Knoxville businessman and Haslam's former economic development commissioner Randy Boyd, state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Knoxville and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee in next Thursday's primary election.

Recent polls vary but usually show a fairly tight race given the surveys' margins of error.

Some Republicans have fretted that Trump-endorsed candidates could struggle in a general election environment.

Last week, the New York Times quoted Haslam saying after the president's endorsement of Kemp that "our focus at the [governors association] has always been on making certain we can win the general election."

Asked by Tennessee reporters Thursday whether he had concerns if Black would have problems if she becomes the nominee, Haslam said, "our concern has not been about that. It's been about, like I said, let's let the process play out."

Major candidates in the Democratic primary are former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.

Early voting in the Tennessee county general election and state and federal party primary contests continues Friday and Saturday.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.