NASHVILLE — A majority of Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus members voted by secret ballot Monday to say Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, still has their confidence after revelations that McNally commented favorably for years on racy Instagram photos posted by a young gay man from Knoxville.
The vote was 19-7 within the 27-member caucus in favor of McNally, the state's lieutenant governor.
"I have always been honored, humbled and grateful for the support of my caucus. I remain so today," McNally said in a statement. "We have a lot of important work left to do as we complete the legislative session, including the budget. I look forward to getting to it."
Several lawmakers said in interviews before totals were announced that they were happy to vote in support of McNally, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly.
"Sure I voted. I voted for McNally," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told reporters from the Chattanooga Times Free Press and the Tennessee Lookout. "Because he's our leader."
Gardenhire said he had absolute faith in the Senate speaker.
"Like I said before, he told the truth, he owned up to it, he didn't make fun of the guy, he didn't criticize his lifestyle," Gardenhire said. "What more do you want?"
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who has been a staunch McNally ally and shares a condo with the speaker in Nashville, declined to say how he voted.
"That's a caucus matter," Watson told the Times Free Press.
He said in response to another question that "I've always been a fan of Randy McNally's" but still wouldn't state if he had voted for McNally and at the time of the interview didn't know what the results were.
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said earlier Monday he was voting to support McNally.
"He's served 40-plus years with the state, did an excellent job, no question. He made a mistake. Let's offer some grace and mercy and forgiveness and move on. We've got business to take care of."
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said he, too, voted in support of McNally.
"Well, I voted to keep him," Niceley said in a hallway interview.
Niceley said Senate Republicans couldn't let "a little vocal minority run us off. And that's all I'm going to say on that."
Several other lawmakers, who have had differences with McNally, were reticent to say how they voted.
"We'll know what the majority says in a while," Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, told the Times Free Press.
Informed that some lawmakers were stating openly how they voted, Bowling offered this: "I suspect I know how they voted then."
Asked if a reporter could infer which way she went by declining to say, the senator smiled.
"You could," she said.
Earlier in the day, members of the 27-member GOP Senate supermajority trickled in one by one into Haile's office to vote on whether they still had confidence in McNally, 79, who became speaker in 2011.
McNally has come under attack from several conservative activists and media groups calling for his resignation or ouster for liking, commenting and posting fire and heart emojis on the Instagram account of Franklyn McClure, a 20-year-old gay performer from Knoxville, who often posts nude or seminude photos of himself.
The speaker has said he has long been active on social media and engages with people not only in posts but in comments and messages. McNally, who later deleted his Instagram account, has said he should have been more careful about how his messages would be perceived. He has said he likes to offer encouragement to constituents.
McNally has voted in favor of several anti-LGBTQ bills, including Republican Gov. Bill Lee's bills to ban children from sexually explicit drag shows and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.
The speaker, however, has said he is not "anti-gay," noting he has friends who are gay as is one of his relatives. He noted he opposed and spoke out against a bill fellow Republicans pushed to block LGBTQ couples from adopting children.
"Saturday Night Live" recently lampooned the speaker.
Last week, Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg, became the first and so far only lawmaker to call on McNally publicly to resign his leadership post, charging the speaker was a "child predator" and calling for an investigation.
In the early 1990s, McNally posed as a corrupt lawmaker at the FBI's request in an effort to expose corruption in the state-regulated charitable bingo industry and bribes on a horse-racing vote.
The federal investigation, code named Operation Rocky Top, ultimately led to convictions for multiple defendants, including the state's former chief bingo inspector from Marion County, his friend who ran a group representing fraudulent operators, as well as a number of bingo operators in Chattanooga and other parts of the state.