NASHVILLE - Regardless of political party, a large majority of Tennesseans agree that Republican House Speaker Glen Casada should resign from the speakership, according to a new Vanderbilt University poll on state policy and political issues.
The survey found 63% of the 1,000 people surveyed in the May 9 to May 23 poll said yes when asked if Casada should step down after revelations about sexually explicit text messages between he and a top aide.
That included 58% of the Republicans surveyed. Among Democrats, 69% agreed Casada should resign, while 64% of independents said he should go.
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The overall poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.8%. The university's polling began three days after news reports appeared on various Casada problems.
That ultimately led to a May 21 no-confidence vote from fellow Republicans and Casada later agreeing to step down amid a move to call a special session to remove him.
Casada announced just this week he intends to resign the speakership on Aug. 2, a delay that Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, is questioning, charging the speaker hopes to "use his position to pick his successor so that he will, in effect, be the shadow speaker."
Carter is among several Republicans vying for the GOP nomination that is tantamount to election, given the GOP's 73-26 super majority over Democrats.
Dr. John Geer, a co-director of the poll and a Vanderbilt political science professor, said voters' feelings toward Casada don't appear to have affected their perception of Republican Gov. Bill Lee or the Legislature as a whole.
On the issues
Pollsters asked Tennesseans about their views about a number of current issues. The list includes:
» Public school voucher program: While lawmakers this year passed a bill creating a school voucher program in the state's two largest counties, Davidson and Shelby, only 40% of those surveyed said they support the plan.
» Abortion bill: A fetal heartbeat bill, which sought to ban abortions in pregnancies as early as six weeks and passed in the House only to falter in the Senate - also failed to receive majority support, garnering only 41% support among those surveyed, according to the poll.
» Voting access: 66% said they support "motor-voter" policies that automatically register Tennesseans to vote when they get driver's licenses or interact with other state agencies.
» Restoring right to vote: 74% said they support restoration of voting rights for Tennesseans with certain felony convictions after they complete their sentences. A bill to do that went nowhere in this year's legislative session.
» Health care: Tennesseans strongly support policies related to children's health. For example, 72% said they backed the recently passed "Katie Beckett" waiver law that permits families of severely disabled children to receive Medicaid funding regardless of income level.
By comparison, 60% said they supported expanding Medicaid to include more low-income adults. And 87% of voters favor mandatory vaccination for healthy children seeking to attend public schools.
State's tradition of political pragmatism vs. higher polarization
Geer and Dr. Josh Clinton, another Vanderbilt political science professor and co-director of the poll, say other poll findings suggest rising polarization nationally may be affecting Tennessee's history of pragmatic politics.
And that could pose a choice for office holders between further strengthening their political bases or pursuing a bipartisan agenda, they said.
Like his immediate predecessor Republican Bill Haslam, Gov. Lee is the most popular politician in the state, holding a 61% approval rating.
Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's support stands at 46%, while Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn's support is at 45%. And support for President Donald Trump remains at 54%. Tennesseans remain unhappy with Congress, giving it just a 26% approval rating, though they feel more optimistic about the state legislature, rating it at 52%.
But Geer and Clinton said new patterns are emerging among the supporters of Tennessee elected officials.
"Lee's support draws less from Democrats and independents and more from Republicans," Geer said. "This is significant and underscores what could be increasing polarization in the state."
It's even more pronounced among the two U.S. senators, Clinton said, noting support for Alexander, who isn't running next year for a fourth term, is essentially bipartisan, according to the poll.
But support for Blackburn is concentrated almost entirely among Republicans, the professor said.
"We're seeing the beginnings of a potential fracture in terms of what direction the state wants to go," said Clinton. "On one hand, our political leaders could go all in for issues that matter to the Republican base, but which may not be reflective of the views of independents and Democrats. Or they can maintain a more consensus-based approach to policies that voters support broadly."
"What is happening nationally in terms of polarization is beginning to infiltrate state politics," Geer said. "We're at a crossroads - going forward, our state leaders can choose to address issues that divide, or issues that unite."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.