With eye on open state House speaker post, Casada aids Republican candidates in GOP primaries

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin participates in an ethics training session in the House chamber in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - In his effort to boost fellow Republicans while weighing a bid to become Tennessee's next state House speaker, Republican Majority Leader Glen Casada is deploying an aggressive strategy in this summer's GOP primary elections that could help both goals.

It includes efforts that could help shape who votes in a contest between Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, to replace retiring Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, in January.

While Casada, McCormick and Johnson haven't formally announced yet, Casada plans to take sides in a number of contested open GOP primaries where no incumbent is running, as well as in defending sitting Republican representatives who face Aug. 2 primary challengers.

Casada confirmed in an interview that he will use his personal leadership political action committee, CAS-PAC, to hire 13 field staffers and offer candidates assistance in everything from getting organized and putting together data bases to knocking on voters' doors and phone banking.

He also will be making contributions and assisting candidates who want the help when it comes to fundraising. Casada said he's budgeting about $208,000 for the overall effort.

"This is nothing new to me," said the Franklin Republican, a former House GOP Caucus chairman. "I help Republicans get elected because they bring a pro-business stance to the state of Tennessee. I'm doing what I've always done, which is help our incumbents and help win some seats."

Still, when asked if his flurry of activity could aid a bid to replace Harwell, the first female speaker in Tennessee history and a candidate for governor, Casada said "I do hope it helps, because I'm interested in running for speaker.

"But," he quickly added, "first thing's first. And the first thing is getting good people elected to the open seats and making sure all of the incumbents come back. So I am not putting the cart before the horse."

Casada vied unsuccesfully in the Republican Caucus with Harwell for the powerful speakership in 2010 GOP Caucus elections.

While candidates for speaker and other leadership offices have traditionally sought to encourage good will among current lawmakers and candidates with contributions, Casada is taking it to a whole new level, especially with using his leadership PAC to hire campaign staffers.

McCormick, who served six years as majority leader, noted that while leader, "I was a lot more active in the campaigns because the majority leader leads and also appoints the caucus campaign committees. That's one of his or her official duties. So you'd expect him to be more involved in campaigns for incumbents."

The Chattanoogan said he's given money to the caucus campaign committee, more than was asked, "so we're all together on that."

And, McCormick said, he too is making contributions to legislative candidates, including some running in open districts where there is no incumbent but there is a contested GOP primary.

"Typically, I have leaned on the incumbent [for advice] - we've had so many retirements this year," McCormick said of the House, where 16 of the GOP's 74-member- strong "super majority" are retiring. "I have asked some of them who they prefer to take their places, and I've participated based on that.

"But," he added, "it's not a situation where I'm involved day to day - I'm not hiring staff or things like that. I understand Glen has done that. Well, he wants to be speaker very badly, and I'll trust the caucus to make that decision when the time comes. I think we're doing it a little differently than we have in the past. But that's OK, we've got a lot of experienced people."

Still, McCormick added regarding Casada's strategy, it can be a "risky thing if he's just looking at it from the standpoint of running for a leadership position next year. You might expect people to be irritated with you in that way."

One race where McCormick and Casada are already on opposing sides is on filling the House District 30 seat being left open by Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, who is retiring to run for the Republican nomination for Hamilton County Register of Deeds.

McCormick is backing Jonathan Mason of Chattanooga, whom he's known for years, as Gravitt's successor. Casada is supporting Esther Helton, an East Ridge city commissioner.

Speaker Pro Tempore Johnson said he "hadn't had a chance, frankly, to keep up with what [Casada] is doing" as he meets with GOP colleagues around the state.

"Of course, you know it's the job of the caucus chairman to try to help our members get re-elected. So I guess he [Casada] is trying to kill two birds with one stone."

Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who has shepherded much of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legislation through the chamber over the past two sessions, also continues to eye the House's top post.

"My conversations with members have been very good," Hawk said. "I think folks I have served with appreciate the work I have done throughout my career. And I will continue to weigh my options."

Hawk said that while it's "impossible to take politics out of what we do in Nashville," the speaker's post "needs to be held by an individual who's concerned about governing and in particular about leading."

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