Tennessee GOP's Civil War reignites in state House speaker's, state party chairman's contests

Tennessee GOP's Civil War reignites in state House speaker's, state party chairman's contests

November 10th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, speaks on his cellphone during a House floor session In Nashville on Feb. 20, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Governor Bill Haslam

Governor Bill Haslam

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Three months after Tennessee Republicans' fractious summer primaries, the state GOP's civil war between establishment and hardline conservative factions is again in full swing.

State Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, a Tea Party-style lawmaker who recently denounced Republican Gov. Bill Haslam as a "traitor" who had meddled in August GOP legislative primaries, announced last week he was challenging state House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a Haslam ally, for the House's No. 1 job.

Meanwhile, former state Rep. Joe Carr, who ran unsuccessfully against Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the August GOP primary, confirmed to the Times Free Press over the weekend that he is strongly considering challenging Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney of Lookout Mountain for the party's top post.

"I'm thinking about it; I'm seriously thinking about it," said Carr, who said he has been approached by a number of Republicans about it. "From my experience on the [Senate] campaign I know there is a growing and unsettling division within the Republican Party."

In an interview last week, Womick said he's running against Harwell due to "concern right now we have an oligarchy. And what I mean by that is we have just a few people setting all the policy from the governor to the speaker. And if you don't do what they tell you to do, then you're going to be targeted in the primaries.

"And," Womick added, "that's not the way the House works. In August, the governor targeted seven, actually eight including myself, but seven sitting Republican legislators in the primary."

Womick said two supporters told him that a Haslam staffer tried to recruit them to run against him in the primary but they didn't want to run against him. Harwell shouldn't have let any of that happen, he said.

Alexia Poe, Haslam's director of communications, declined to comment on Womick's charges.

The Times Free Press reported in early August how a newly created political action committee, Advance PAC, had jumped into five legislative contests and attacked Tea Party-style incumbents.

All had crossed Haslam on bills including Common Core education standards in which they joined with minority Democrats to deliver the governor a stinging rebuke. A number of contributors to the Advance PAC were Haslam friends.

In a statement, Harwell called it "a privilege to serve as the Speaker after capturing the majority and the supermajority. This has been such a great opportunity for the Republican Party, and together, we have accomplished things that align with our conservative principles: lower taxes, limited government, and greater economic freedom and prosperity."

The speaker, who hasn't ruled out seeking statewide office in the future, said she has "very much enjoyed being Speaker, working with each member to help them be successful representatives of their districts and advancing ideas that help all Tennesseans."

Several House GOP members say they think Harwell has enough to turn back a Womick challenge. The caucus will hold its leadership elections Dec. 10.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Republican Party's 66-member State Executive Committee (SEC) will hold its chairman election on Dec. 6. And it could have a fight all its own.

Devaney announced last week that he intends to run for a third two-year term, citing advancements the GOP continued to make in last Tuesday's elections.

But Carr said he is concerned about divisions within the party.

"I think we need to get out on the same page - we need to find out what that page is and get on it as Republicans," he said. "And I'm concerned about the PAC that went after state legislators."

Moreover, Carr said, he is also concerned about another PAC, the controversial and secretive Strong & Free Tennessee, which spent $27,467.64 in 29 Republican SEC races in August, Tennessee Registry of Election Finance records show. The SEC elects the chairman.

The group, which initially wasn't properly registered with local election commissions or the state Registry of Election Finance, later reported receiving $35,000 from a separate Strong & Free Tennessee Inc. organization, which didn't have to disclose its donors.

At the time the PAC got the money, Strong & Free Tennessee Inc. wasn't even incorporated, Secretary of State records show.

Last year, Carr launched a Tea Party-style challenge to Alexander, in which he charged the senator had "abandoned conservative principles" in areas ranging from voting for "amnesty" for illegal immigrants to supporting Common Core, which Alexander denied.

Alexander won the primary with 49.64 percent of the vote while Carr took second place in the eight-person contest with 40.63 percent. Carr later met with Alexander, but he never endorsed the senator in the general election.

Carr said he and Alexander discussed immigration and Common Core and he later went over his concerns with Alexander's chief of staff, David Cleary. But he said Cleary was supposed to speak with him again but never did.

Alexander has said Carr had his cellphone number and could call at any time.

Asked if he could be a unifying force for the party in light of the lack of endorsement, Carr said Saturday, "I think I can be."

He reiterated that "the reason for the lack of the endorsement wasn't my unwillingness to do so. It was because I didn't get the followup from his senior staff."

Carr noted Alexander didn't need the endorsement anyway. The senator easily won the general election with 62 percent of the vote.

Devaney, meanwhile, said "our record at the state party speaks for itself," pointing to increases in the state House and state Senate's current Republican "super majorities" last week. House Republicans went from 61 to 63 seats to Democrats' 26 members, while the Senate Republicans picked up two seats and now have 28 of 33 seats. It was a group effort, Devaney said.

The chairman called the Strong & Free Tennessee PAC's SEC race contributions "unfortunate, but I didn't have anything to do with that. And so I'm trying to figure out exactly why [Carr] would base his candidacy on that."

As for Carr's argument he can bring peace to warring party factions, Devaney was dismissive and sees himself as a conservative who has been able to "build bridges" with all sides.

"A unifier to me is someone, if running for state chair, [who] needs to endorse our Republican nominees," Devaney said. "And Joe Carr, for whatever excuse he wants to give, he failed to do that. And I think that's a disqualifier. Period."