By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
Gov. Bill Haslam describes it as a good problem to have.
frequently in recent weeks whether the Republican Party's expected
landslide in the general election would create new challenges for him,
Haslam invoked former GOP Govs. Winfield Dunn and Lamar Alexander, both
of whom faced cantankerous legislatures led by Democrats.
lot better than the alternative," Haslam said. "I'd way rather have a
supermajority in my party, and I'd rather have it than have a one- or
two-vote majority. There's difficulties in every situation."
will return to Nashville in January with their biggest delegation in
more than a century, supermajorities in both chambers of 26 senators and
70 representatives. Not since Democrats dominated the statehouse in the
1960s has one party wielded such complete power in Tennessee.
large Republican majority could give Haslam and leaders of the state
legislature absolute authority to enact their agenda. Or it could
contain the seeds of their political undoing.
essentially three parties out there now: the Republicans, the Democrats
and the tea party," said state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House minority
The Republican rise has forced massive turnover in the
legislature, particularly the House of Representatives. Of 70
Republicans members, only 12 have been in office a decade or longer, and
33 had never served before 2011.
The newcomers include tea party
insurgents and business-oriented conservatives, making it difficult to
predict how they will shape the course of events in Nashville. Even
Haslam says he doesn't know many of them well.
"Some of them I've
known and campaigned for," he said in an interview last week. "Some of
them I've known since I campaigned because they're people that helped
me. But there are a lot that I only have an acquaintance-type
Gaining a supermajority ranks as a watershed moment for the
Republican Party in Tennessee, but its significance is largely symbolic.
already had enough numbers to override a gubernatorial veto - not that
one is likely with the party also holding the governor's office - and
they hold a firm grip on the speaker's gavels in the House and Senate.
the election, Republicans said holding at least two-thirds of the seats
in the House and Senate would guarantee Democrats could not disrupt
proceedings by walking out and denying them the quorum needed by law to
conduct business. But that argument assumed Tennessee Democrats would
use a tactic they have never threatened to try.
will gain the power to suspend the rules of debate, allowing them to
dictate when votes occur. But doing so could cause as many political
problems as it would solve - one of which would be muzzling their own
Republicans - or at least their predecessors - appear to
have held a supermajority at least once before. Gov. William Brownlow,
an abolitionist who led the state from 1865 to 1869, presided over a
legislature made up entirely of members elected on the "Loyal Union
slate," according to the legislature's official librarian.
were also the norm during the 20th century, with Democrats brandishing
the gavel. In 1938, Democrats won 84 of the House's 99 seats. Four years
later, the party held all but three of the Senate's 33 seats.
late as 1966, well into the civil rights movement that forged a dramatic
realignment of the two parties, Democrats held two-thirds majorities in
both chambers of the legislature.
TN Republicans traveled rough road
Previous supermajorities had a muting effect on debate in the General
Assembly. Lawmakers then knew that as long as they deferred to the
wishes of their governor and party leaders, they were almost certain to
It is not clear that such a dynamic will be
repeated, because the road to a Republican supermajority has been
anything but smooth.
The party surged from an evenly divided
legislature to 64 seats in the 2010 election. Most of the gains came in
the form of political neophytes supported by the tea party.
this year's election, Republicans added six more seats, but it's hard to
pin down whether either wing of the Republican Party will emerge as
dominant within that group.
Many of the newcomers were personally
recruited by GOP leaders to run for seats left open by redistricting.
Others picked off long-time Republicans leaders such as Hendersonville
Rep. Debra Maggart, the House Republican Caucus chairwoman, and
Sevierville Rep. Richard Montgomery, chairman of the House Education
Committee, in the Republican primary.
So far, the Republican
Party's leadership appears set to remain in charge. With caucus
elections planned soon after Thanksgiving, no member has announced plans
to challenge House Speaker Beth Harwell or state Rep. Gerald McCormick,
the majority leader. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey remains firmly ensconced in
But the leanings of individual members within the
Republican supermajority will be important. Lawmakers next year are
expected to weigh a voucher program for public schools, tax cuts,
changes to the workers' compensation system, health care reform and a
statewide authorizer for charter schools.
The outcome of those
debates could turn on whether moderate Republicans hold more
conservative colleagues in check - or if moderates decide they'll run
too great a risk of being challenged in the 2014 primaries.
Rep. Glen Casada, a veteran Republican representative from Thompson's
Station and so far the only candidate to replace Maggart as caucus
chairman, said he expects little dissension from the Republican ranks.
are things that, as a Republican, you hold very dear, no matter if
you're suburban, urban or rural," he said. "There are some regional
differences, but if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, we agree."
Haslam says one of the first tasks of Republican leaders next year will
be getting to know the new members. And for the newcomers, it will be
learning their roles as legislators.
"It takes anybody new a while to get their sea legs," he said.
Dems expect dissent
Democrats are forecasting dissent from within the Republican ranks.
Speaking to reporters last week, Democratic leaders said they will be
unified while their GOP counterparts squabble.
"Gov. Haslam has a
hard road ahead," Fitzhugh said. "Many of their new members appear to be
extremists from the far right of the political spectrum. He'll have to
show a little more than he has."
Republicans are not the only ones
with challenges on their hands. With only a quarter of the seats in the
General Assembly and a political map redrawn through redistricting to
favor GOP candidates, Democrats could face decades in the minority.
dynamics had Democratic leaders last week claiming minor victories -
that they had managed to defeat a single Republican member of the House,
that 24 incumbent representatives had successfully defended their
seats, that three other Democrats had won open seats.
"They had a
supermajority in the House when they left in April. With redistricting,
they were up to 74 seats," said state Rep. Mike Turner, the Democratic
Caucus chairman. "I think we won."
The outcome left Democrats
grasping for ways to describe their new place as the superminority. They
said they would work with Republicans to some extent but also vowed to
force them to show they could hold onto power.
"We know who's
driving the car, and it's the Republicans, and we clearly understand
that," Fitzhugh said. "But they're the ones that have it on their
shoulders right now."