Matheny, R-Tullahoma, was defeated by Rep. Curtis Johnson of Clarksville in a secret ballot.
Matheny announced in August that he was mulling a challenge to Harwell for speaker because he felt marginalized by other Republican leaders. He said they worked to dilute his key legislative initiatives ranging from loosening gun laws to battling what he perceived as the spread of Islamic law in the United States.
He later abandoned that bid in favor of another term in his current role, but by that point, Johnson had already begun to round up support for the position.
“We all need to pull together, we should all remember that our caucus tent is big enough to have different opinions,” Johnson said before the vote.
Matheny left before the House GOP meeting ended and did not speak to reporters. He was a main sponsor of a 2011 bill that sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah law.
Hundreds of Muslims came to the Legislature to express fears the measure would outlaw central tenets of Islam, such as praying five times a day toward Mecca, abstaining from alcohol or fasting for Ramadan.
The heavily watered-down law ultimately enacted by the Legislature bore little resemblance to the original proposal and references to any specific religion were removed.
Matheny also clashed with House leaders over a bill seeking to guarantee employees the ability to store firearms in vehicles parked at work. Matheny rejected property rights concerns raised by several fellow Republicans in the House.
Harwell said the fact that only the major leadership position was challenged illustrates the level of unity within the caucus.
“There’s not the dissention that some might thing within the caucus,” she said. “I think we have a great leadership team in place.”
Harwell also welcomed Johnson’s victory.
The speaker and the speaker pro tempore are the only positions elected by the entire House membership, but as Republicans hold 70 of 99 seats in the chamber, the official votes are expected to be little more than a formality.
Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga was unopposed for another term, and Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin was elected Republican caucus chairman, a position vacated by the primary defeat of Rep. Debra Maggart of Hendersonville.
Rep. Curry Todd, who was absent from the meeting, failed to be re-elected to fiscal review committee. The Collierville Republican has a court date this week in Nashville on drunken driving and gun charge.