Opinion: To run as a Republican in Tennessee, you must pay to play

Staff File Photo / Attendees listen as former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz speaks during the Hamilton County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner at the Westin Hotel in 2019.

Having the signatures of 25 friends will no longer get you on the ballot in Tennessee if you're a Republican.

In August, the state Executive Committee of the Republican Party voted to levy fees on candidates running with the GOP brand in federal, state and county races.

The filing fees, charged on a sliding scale based on the office, range from $25 for county commission candidates to $5,000 for governor and U.S. Senate.

Republican officials in 32 states already charge candidates such fees.

We would prefer the party had left things as they were, with getting the signatures, being of voting age, and having the proper county or district residency being all that was needed to run. We're afraid the new fees could keep some good people from becoming candidates and would brand the party as exclusive, a reputation it has taken pains to shed over the last several decades.

"As a former [state GOP] party chairman," state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said in an email, "I understand that there is an administrative cost to the process of elections and ballot access, especially in Tennessee where the respective parties serve as the primary board."

Such fees also deter candidates who are not otherwise serious about their candidacy to the degree of establishing a committee, raising funds and actually running, she said.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said GOP officials have acknowledged the fees are a way to raise money for the party and show running as a Republican has a value.

"I don't disagree with that," he said of the value, but he wondered if the party hadn't been getting the donations it traditionally had because donors were "saying we don't like what we see" or whether party officials "were too lazy to raise the money."

Gardenhire said the party fees of several dozen candidates in each county alone, multiplied by 95 counties, and not including state legislative, congressional or judicial candidates, is "significant money. What are [they] going to do with that?"

The judicial candidates are in a particular fix, he noted.

The state's judicial ethics committee said in a September opinion that the Tennessee Rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct bars the practice of judges paying the fees, but the GOP executive committee hasn't rescinded the rule for them. However, the executive committee does meet in December and must make a decision on what to do before Dec. 20, when qualifying petitions for the 2022 elections will be available.

If the executive committee doesn't act, Gardenhire says he'll offer a bill in next year's legislative session saying that elections for chancellors, circuit court judges, criminal court judges and judges of other courts of record must be nonpartisan, and that a political party shall not not require a judicial candidate to pay a fee as a requirement to run as a candidate for that political party.

He said his bill won't eliminate the fees for all candidates because to do so "would be self-serving."

For incumbents and many candidates with significant war chests, the campaign can write a check from donations and not even feel it. But Gardenhire said for candidates in smaller counties, coming up with the fee could be prohibitive.

"It'll automatically weed out some people," he said. "A lot of people will say, 'I don't have $500'" (the fee for state House candidates, district attorneys general and public defenders, among others).

Gardenhire recalled a 2010 state Senate Republican candidate, Jim Summerville, who was seeking a seat in southern Middle Tennessee. He said Summerville raised "about $187," didn't have a cellphone and beat an incumbent Democrat. He said if the candidate had to pay the party a fee, he might not have won.

But upper East Tennessee state GOP Executive Committee member Anita Taylor said in an August Johnson City Press story there can be exceptions.

She said the executive committee, at the same meeting it voted to assess the fees, also voted to allow a Republican candidate who "does not have the financial ability to pay" the required filing fee to make an appeal in writing to the "political subdivision" of the Tennessee Republican Party at least 10 days before the applicable filing deadline and ask for a waiver to the charge.

Gardenhire said while there has been some talk in Nashville about the Republican fees, he's not sure word has gotten around the state.

"It hasn't dawned on people," he said. "A lot of them just haven't seen it."

Among the other fees: $2,500 for U.S. House of Representatives, $1,000 for state Senate and $100 for countywide offices such as county mayor, sheriff or Sessions Court judge.