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Clockwise from top left: Gov. Bill Lee, state Rep. Robin Smith, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley and former U.S. Sen. Bill Brock. (Times Free Press files)

While some prominent national-level Republicans publicly oppose President Donald Trump's reelection, that isn't the case among top local and Tennessee Republicans, where even the state's most prominent 2016 "never Trumper" is silent this year.

Four years ago, amid the uproar over leaked Access Hollywood tapes showing Trump years earlier speaking in crude sexual terms about women, then-Gov. Bill Haslam said that, "for the good of the nation," the GOP nominee should step aside.

Haslam told The Tennessean in 2019 he would vote for the GOP's nominee, presuming it would be Trump. But now it's 2020, and asked by the Times Free Press whether he planned to vote for Trump, Haslam said, "One of the nice things about not being in office is not having to answer questions like this!"

Haslam's successor, Republican Gov. Bill Lee, is an enthusiastic supporter, telling the Times Free Press that "I support President Trump because he has supported Tennessee in our times of need. Whether it be in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty or deadly tornadoes, President Trump has given our state the resources and flexibility to meet the needs of hardworking Tennesseans.

"I share the president's belief in American exceptionalism and am proud to back him for a deserved second term," Lee said in a statement.

The New York Times recently compiled a list of prominent Republicans opposing Trump. Among them is former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 GOP candidate for president. Kasich endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden last month in a video aired at the Democratic National Convention in which he said that despite being a lifelong Republican, "that attachment holds second place to my responsibility to my country."

No one from Tennessee was on the newspaper's list.

In fact, this year, Tennessee's three top office holders, Republicans Lee, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and even U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander — a political moderate who has disagreed with some Trump policies but praised him on others — all serve as honorary Trump state campaign co-chairs.

During last month's Republican National Convention, Blackburn, on whose behalf Trump stumped two years earlier in her Senate campaign battle with Democrat Phil Bredesen, praised Trump, saying "he's made good on his promise to put America first."

Not everyone is on board, however.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Brock said he is waiting to see how the candidates perform in the debates.

"[They] will tell us a lot," the former Lookout Mountain Republican said. "One of the concerns you have about Joe Biden is whether or not his occasional malaprops would indicate some diminishment of his capacity. And if that shows itself, that would be a really big factor in making that decision."

"I guess I'm like a lot of people, Haslam or others," he added. "It's a tough call this year."

Brock said Trump has largely delivered on what he said he would do, "and he's done it well." The problem, however, is the president's approach.

"The virus issue is pretty illustrative," he said. "He did himself a huge amount of damage the way he dominated the early conversations and did so leaving some impressions that were not accurate."

Biden, meanwhile, has problems of a very different kind by Brock's estimation.

While people say, and "rightly so, that he's a very decent human being," the problem is that the people who have nominated him have "given him a platform that is the most radical I've seen in America for 200 years."

While former Chattanooga U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp agrees that Trump's approach has hurt him, he said when pressed that he would vote for the incumbent president.

"I am not voting for any Democrat on the national level and haven't voted for a Democrat on the national level since 1976," he said.

"I see the good and the bad with President Trump and there is plenty of both," he said, while saying he finds fault with Trump's frequent attacks on people.

"The president has gotten worse, not better," Wamp said. "Maybe worst of all is the way he treats people. [It is] simply unacceptable. As Sen. Lankford of Oklahoma said, I want my president to be a role model, and while I support his policies, he is not a role model to my children.

"But make no mistake about it, he has as good a chance to be re-elected as not. These national elections are not a referendum any more just two choices."

He was quick to praise the president's Supreme Court appointments and social policy actions, saying Trump has been "very consistent. Frankly, on trade and foreign policy/national security he is better than most, and has put his foot down, which has been needed for some time. But I am a conservative, and he is actually a populist."

In interviews, a number of local Republicans said that while they don't always agree with Trump on some policies as well as style, they do like many of the things he has achieved and has their full support.

"You got to get past all the personality stuff," said state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, describing himself as a President Ronald Reagan and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp adherent. "Once you get past that, you know, he's lowered taxes, he had the economy going great, he's appointed constitutional-minded federal judges — not those who believe in a 'living' Constitution that can be changed."

Gardenhire said "I think the alternative to Trump would be horrible as far as policy goes, not personalities, but policies."

State Rep. Robin Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chair, said Trump has delivered on his 2016 promises in areas ranging from cutting taxes and regulations to shrinking burdensome parts of government. She also cited his reining in of terrorist groups and taking "a heavy hand against communism."

"I think that is very very much what Tennesseans like to see," she added. "They like to see problems solved."

That said, however, Smith noted sometimes Trump "seems to enjoy seeing a lot of things stirred. And while that may serve a purpose, sometimes it just doesn't. You know, sometimes it causes intra-party fussing and fighting and that's not unheard of these days."

Republicans in Hamilton County seem consistent with many others across the state, planning to support the president in November.

Three of the county's six Republican county commissioners responded for this story, all of whom said they would be voting for Trump in November.

"I'm voting for Trump without hesitation," Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said Tuesday. "It's very important for me to protect our religious freedoms and to support our military and to have a strong economy."

Smedley said that she believes Democrats are more likely to vote for Trump than Republicans voting for Biden.

"I know a lot of Democrat friends of mine that are actually going to vote for [Trump] too," she said. "I've had a lot of Democrats tell me that they feel like their party left them behind. They used to feel like it was more the party of working class, but they feel like they've left them and become more of a party of socialism."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini said Trump has "taken over the Republican Party and instead of standing up to this president who has caused such chaos and violence and death in this country, they are instead putting party over the well-being of Tennesseans and Americans. And it's really quite shocking and sad."

Pointing to the estimated 180,000 Americans who have died as a result of the coronavirus, Mancini said "we have more cases than any other country, and this was because there was a real lack of leadership when this pandemic first hit and then continued on and still continues today.

"His way of governing is chaos, and for him chaos is a ladder. And it's tearing this country apart. There is nothing for the Republicans in Tennessee to still support in this lack of leadership and this kind of opportunism and divisiveness."

Likening the situation to an open wound, Mancini said, "Instead of trying to heal that open wound, what Donald Trump is doing is taking a pointed stick and jabbing it, consistently, and that's not what a leader does."

OTHER VOICES: 

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

Efforts to reach Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, were unsuccessful, but during the Republican convention, Fleischmann said in a tweet: "I am proud to be with @realDonaldTrump at the White House for night 4 of the #RNC2020. #FourMoreYears."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally

McNally, of Oak Ridge, said in his view Trump "has done something extremely rare for a national politician: He kept his promises. He kept our economy strong, appointed conservative jurists and is dedicated to preserving law and order. And he did all of this while shepherding our nation through an unprecedented worldwide pandemic."

McNally said he backs the "Trump-Pence ticket unequivocally."

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker

Efforts to speak with Corker, a Chattanooga Republican who famously feuded publicly with the president, were unsuccessful.

State House Speaker Cameron Sexon, R-Crossville

Sexton said he wholeheartedly backs the Trump-Pence ticket, adding, "I know they will continue to secure our borders, reboot our economy as we recover from the pandemic and provide law and order against anarchists and those who stand for mob action. I have no doubt they will carry this great state of Tennessee."

State Sen. Bo Watson

Watson, a Hixson Republican, said he supports Trump's reelection. He observed that Trump is "a figure unto himself. And things that work for him would never work for Bo Watson. And his tactics are not necessarily tactics that I would use because that's just not my personality. On policy, I think he aligns very well with Tennessee Republicans.

"If you're looking for where there might be a deviation," added Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, "it would probably be on the fiscal side. I would say Tennessee Republicans by and large are really conservative on the fiscal side of things."

Still, Watson said, the nation is experiencing an "extraordinary time" given the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic difficulties. "Some of the strategies we're having to use are by necessity and not necessarily by design."

Efforts to reach Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, were unsuccessful last week.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Staff writer Sarah Grace Taylor contributed to this report.

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