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Updated at 8:34 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, with more information.

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Republican Party's call for state lawmakers to require voters register by party affiliation and then restrict GOP and Democratic primary elections just to party voters has stirred the political pot.

State GOP Chairman Scott Golden says it's one of several requests the Republican State Executive Committee approved Saturday, arguing it "will help maintain the integrity of our elections and elect the best-qualified Republican candidates to federal, state, and local offices."

Proponents argue that it's necessary to stop crossover voting by Democrats in Republican primaries. But critics say it threatens to undermine Republican process in a state where the GOP has benefited from the support of a number of Democrats and become the dominant party in Tennessee.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam panned the idea Monday, saying he is strongly opposed it.

"I'll say this: If you're a Republican, I think it's a silly proposal, because, think, when we were the minority party forever, if everybody registered and voted by party, I could argue Republicans wouldn't be in as good a position they've been in," he said.

Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee wasn't exactly a fan either.

"The Republican party has been very successful in recent years in securing the majorities that we have and the positions we hold in the state," Lee told reporters after he visited the Senate Republican Caucus as the GOP majority senators held leadership elections. "And I think the current system we have is working."

Republicans today also hold super majorities in the state Senate and House, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of the state's nine congressional seats.

Tennessee voters currently don't register with political parties and pick the primary ballot they wish to vote in. Tennessee law does say primary voters must be "bona fide" party members or willing to "declare allegiance" to the party.

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini blasted the notion of having closed primaries here, saying in a statement that "no Tennessean should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote, including independent voters."

She said "as the share of independent voters continues to increase in Tennessee, this move would suppress them from making their voices heard in the primary process. This is a solution in search of a problem."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he is "extremely against" party registration and restricting the respective party primaries to just registered Republicans and Democrats.

"I've never been for closing the primaries," said Gardenhire, noting that crossover voting helped build the GOP into the power house it is today.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, agreed, calling the proposal "stupid."

Niceley said a Democrat who "sneaks" into a GOP primary because he or she supports a particular candidate winds up becoming "more comfortable" about voting for other Republicans. "Look what we've done. We've gone from being a minority to being a super majority."

But Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said he's open to it.

"I'm going to not answer that question definitively today but listen to my constituents," Bell said. "I think three of my county parties have passed resolutions asking me to support it."

Asked about arguments by a number of top leaders that having closed primaries would hurt, Bell said "I've heard that. I don't yet know if that's the truth. You know, and I tell people when they call me, there's already a remedy prescribed in law for the party to close it."

They can do it by Republicans gathering in a caucus, Bell said. "You talk about control. If the party really wants to control who gets chosen in a primary, they can do it by caucus now under current law."

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said, "When you're in a position like we are with a supermajority, the challenge is that a lot of people will adopt the Republican name just to get on the ballot because that's the only way they can win, I understand that argument.

But Watson said that "on the other side of the equation though, I think keeping the primaries open is actually good for us. It helps us to broaden our base which we're going to have to do in the coming years."

He believes closing the party primaries to everyone but registered Republicans "makes it a little more difficult to do that." He said he believes broadening the GOP's base "is going to be necessary for us moving out into the future."

State Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who was just renominated Monday by the Republican Caucus, was open to considering closing the primaries but noted "the devil's in the details to some extent to make sure we're not denying new voters a chance to vote in a primary or denying somebody who has a legitimate reason to vote in the primary to vote.

"So we'll have to work through that," McNally said, "The open process has sometimes been used to our disadvantage. But you know, sometimes it certainly helped build the party to where it is today."

A day before the Republican State Executive Committee's vote on Saturday, John Harris, head of the Tennessee Firearms Association, blasted off an email to support in which he sharply criticized Tennessee's primary system, which is rated a "partially open" primary by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"One of the problems that have been a chronic nightmare for conservatives and those who are constitutionally principled is that the Republican controlled legislature has for the last 8 years repeatedly refused to close the primaries in Tennessee.

"This," Harris charged, "has repeatedly allowed Democrats, progressives, liberals and communists to vote in Republican primaries and influence those outcomes. We see the results and the harm it has caused — over and over and over."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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