NASHVILLE — Efforts by tea party Republicans to seize the Tennessee House's No. 1 leadership position, the speakership, fizzled Wednesday when incumbent Beth Harwell handily defeated a challenge from Rep. Rick Womick.
The first female House speaker in Tennessee history and a close ally of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, Harwell beat Womick 57-15, winning her party's nomination for a third two-year term.
Given Republicans' 73-28 majority over Democrats, Harwell, of Nashville, is a virtual shoo-in when the the House convenes Jan. 13.
Republicans re-elected Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga; GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of Franklin; and Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson, of Clarksville. None faced opposition.
Rep. Kevin Brooks, of Cleveland, was re-elected assistant majority leader after turning back a challenge from Rep. Jeremy Faison, of Cosby, in a 44-28 vote. But Rep. Cameron Sexton, of Crossville, lost the GOP whip post to Rep. Jeremy Durham, of Franklin, 38-34.
The House speaker's contest represented the continuation of the rift between the GOP's establishment and tea party wings, a split plainly displayed in August primary races.
"We're going to have some tough issues before us," Harwell told colleagues. "But it's my hope as your speaker that we'll conduct ourselves in a civil demeanor, and ... come up with constructive solutions that bridge the diversity of this caucus, not fracture it."
Some critics call Harwell moderate, but she noted that her Democratic opponent in November accused her of being "a conservative extremist and a Republican of the tea party bent."
Harwell said she has tried to follow President Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" of not criticizing fellow Republicans publicly, and she cited her support of issues such as abolishing the state inheritance tax and the state's injured worker system.
Womick sought to frame the race as a referendum on legislative independence from Haslam, and "reforming a process that involves personal and political retribution."
"If you speak out against this governor on Common Core or oppose him on Medicaid expansion, he will oppose you in 2016," Womick said.
He repeated charges that Haslam and top aides were responsible for a political action committee, Advance PAC, that attacked five incumbent Republicans in the primaries. He has accused Haslam of being a "traitor" to his party and said Haslam's chief of staff, Mark Cate, tried to recruit a primary opponent for him. Cate has called that charge "crazy."
"Right now, I'm passionate because my family, my Republican family, is being attacked," said Womick, a commercial airline pilot. "In this case it's the governor's office."
He waved a direct mail piece sent to his district on Monday charging him with putting his "ambition" above the interests of voters in his Rutherford County district. The piece was funded by Stand for Children Tennessee, which lobbies lawmakers on education issues such as charter schools.
Womick also complained Haslam was overreaching by issuing unconstitutional "flags" on legislation he opposes. Governors of both parties have issued flags for decades based on costs or ideological differences, leading to considerable griping by those whose ideas are blocked by speakers or committee chairmen.
In the end, caucus members backed Harwell. Several said privately that while they aren't happy with everything Harwell has done, it wasn't enough for them to back Womick.
Earlier in the day, Senate Republicans nominated powerful Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville to a fifth term in the upper chamber's top post.
Republicans hold 28 of the Senate's 33 seats. Ramsey faced no opposition. Neither did Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.