Command eludes TN GOP conservatives

Associated Press • Nov 22, 2010 at 4:37 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republicans have been making rapid gains in Tennessee, but the most conservative elements of the party have failed to take control amid the rising GOP tide.

In the most recent example, Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville won the House GOP speaker's nomination last week despite vocal opposition from outside tea party and gun rights groups.

That followed Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam's easy win in a three-way GOP primary in August that featured two opponents who pilloried the eventual governor-elect as an "establishment moderate." Also, Stephen Fincher cruised to the GOP nomination and was later elected to Congress despite tea party movement howling over the millions he had received in federal farm subsidies.

Even the narrow election of Chris Devaney as Republican Party chairman in May was seen as a reaction to the more hard-right tenure of his predecessor Robin Smith, who in turn lost her bid for Congress in the GOP primary.

While Democrats are licking their wounds over losing 14 seats in the state House, some are consoled that more moderate leadership has preservered among their Republican counterparts.

"I was a little surprised that with the endorsement of the talk radio establishment, the gun establishment and the tea party establishment, that (Republicans) went against their wishes," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.

Asked by a reporter whether he perceives a repudiation of hard-core conservative elements in the GOP, Turner responded: "I would say yes, what else can it be?"

Mark Skoda, who heads the Memphis Tea Party was an outspoken critic of Harwell before she was nominated in a secret ballot on Thursday.

"It's business as usual in Nashville," he said after the vote. "We worked very hard to get conservatives elected in Tennessee. And this is certainly a move toward a moderate."

Harwell has rejected suggestions that she is not conservative enough to reflect the mood of the electorate. Skoda said he's skeptical, but is holding out some hope.

"Perhaps she'll be more conservative than we think," Skoda said.

Conservative radio talk show host Steve Gill, who has run for office as a Republican, was not so sure. In a Twitter post after her nomination as the GOP's speaker candidate, he said: "Look for primary challenges and third party candidates in TN House races in 2012."

The pressure from outside groups over the caucus vote for speaker has caused some grumbling in the hallways of the legislative office complex, though lawmakers turn back suggestions that the campaign to nominate Rep. Glen Casada backfired on the Franklin Republican.

"We live in a democracy," said Rep. Mike Harrison, a Rogersville Republican just elected to his fifth term. "If you can't handle people letting you know how they feel about things, you don't need to be in politics. That's just part of it."

Harrison was among the majority of Republican members who cited caucus unity in declining to say whom they supported in the speaker's race.

Casada bowed out of seeking any leadership position within the caucus after losing the speaker's nomination to Harwell. "I am going to be a backbencher, but I'll support the caucus to the utmost," he said.

Casada chalked up his defeat to Harwell being more persuasive with the membership rather than an ideological division, though he maintains he was the more conservative choice.

"I think she campaigned better, more effectively than I did," he said. "She's very smart, very articulate, and I think she'll make a great leader."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who was one of the unsuccessful challengers to Haslam in the Republican gubernatorial primary, again failed to see his preferred candidate nominated for speaker in the lower chamber after his protege Jason Mumpower lost by one vote in 2008.

Ramsey told the Chattanooga Times Free Press before the vote that he thought Casada would "make a great speaker."

His appraisal of Harwell was less glowing. She "would be a good speaker, too, I suppose," he said.

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