As Gov. Bill Haslam looks ahead to the 2014 legislative session, he does so with one eye on his re-election prospects.
Less than a year before Tennesseans take to the polls next November, Haslam does not face a serious challenge from the left or the right, a comfortable position that has many expecting that he'll coast to a second term.
But the Republican governor appears to be taking little for granted. In recent speeches and in private, Haslam subtly appears to be rolling out his bid for a second term.
The Haslam campaign is preparing a major fundraiser in Nashville early next year with a top donor's circle of $100,000, an escalation in the money battle even as Democrats struggle to find a credible challenger. Meanwhile, the governor has used the clear field to burnish hisimage, casting himself as a government reformer and pragmatic politician focused on lifting the state's economy and education systems.
Haslam goes into 2014 riding high. His approval rating stands at 61 percent, according to a poll released last week by Vanderbilt University, and he appears to have at least $2 million in the bank, campaign finance reports show.
"He's done consistently well," said John Geer, co-director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. "I don't think there's likely to be any serious challenge."
A short and smooth legislative session would help Haslam's re-election bid, and the governor already has done much to make that scenario possible. But he'll have to make his way around a few obvious political obstacles.
Haslam signaled months ago that his top policy priority during the session would be higher education. In September, the governor's office held a glitzy event at the Music City Center to build support for his "Drive to 55" initiative, an effort to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with a post-secondary degree or certification to 55 percent.
Haslam said then that the push would figure prominently into his 2014-15 budget proposal and his legislative agenda, so he'll need the cooperation of his fellow Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature to get that done.
The governor also has headed off a potential battle with conservative lawmakers by saying he has no immediate plans to expand the state's Medicaid program, TennCare.
Hospitals have pressed for expansion. Uninsured patients continue to stretch their resources, they say, and unless the state agrees to add an estimated 175,000 more Tennesseans to the TennCare rolls, they face service cuts, particularly in rural areas.
Expansion, they argue, would give those patients coverage, paid for largely by the federal government, which has promised millions to help states that opt for expansion.
But after nearly nine months of talks with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Haslam's office sent a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stating "we do not see a path forward in the current environment" on TennCare expansion.
That pleased one of expansion's biggest skeptics, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the speaker of the state Senate.
"Let's be honest. The Obama administration doesn't trust Tennessee to take care of poor people," he said. "It's never going to happen."
Gov. offers rebuttal
The governor's handling of the legislature, which reconvenes Jan. 14, has been uneven over his first three years in office. That has fed a persistent criticism of the governor — that his agenda has been at the mercy of conservatives within his party, including Ramsey.
In a speech last week to a packed meeting of the influential Rotary Club of Nashville, Haslam offered a rebuttal of sorts in describing his approach.
"You make the right policy decisions in light of a very difficult political environment," he said.
Haslam's appearance Monday at the Rotary Club may have offered several clues as to how the governor plans to make the case for his re-election.
Haslam presented himself to the crowd of Middle Tennessee business leaders as one of their own. He declared that he had shaken up state government by bringing in a private-sector perspective, sometimes to his political detriment.
"The easiest thing in the world to do is to leave things just the way that they are," he said. "It's when you change things that ... you start getting lots of questions."
Haslam plugged Drive to 55, which he linked to economic growth, and he offered his explanation for a recent dip in tax revenues in an economy that still appears to be expanding slowly.
The appearance also allowed him to address some of the potential political liabilities lying in his path. Without mentioning that his administration had come under fire for contracting work to the Chicago-based real estate advisory firm Jones Lang LaSalle — a company the governor invested in before taking office in 2011 — Haslam said he had learned during his first term that he could not make decisions as if he were the head of a private business.
"Process matters a lot more in public office than it does in business," he said. "It is different when you deal with the public's money. You have to get used to that when you come into a job like this."
Days after the speech, the Haslam administration would ask the State Building Commission to "wind down" a portion of the Jones Lang LaSalle deal. But it did so only after a push to expand the relationship fell flat with Republican legislative leaders.
Haslam's approach to governing appears to have worn well with Tennesseans. Nearly half of the state's Democrats say they support the Republican governor.
"Haslam is not a polarizing figure," said Geer. "There's no doubt about that."
But other obstacles could make his path to re-election more complicated.
The ongoing investigation into Pilot Flying J, his family's chain oftruck stops, holds the potential to disrupt his campaign. The governor has not worked for the company in a decade, and so far, only lower and mid-level employees in the firm have been accused of wrongdoing in the rebate scandal. But a prolonged inquiry could be used against Haslam by an opponent.
Haslam also could be tripped up by surprises during the legislative session. Last year, he withdrew a school voucher plan because Republican lawmakers wanted to broaden it. Polls show vouchers to be popular, and Haslam will be under pressure to produce a program that satisfies lawmakers, voters and educators.
A fight over new learning standards could damage the governor, too. After pushing for Tennessee to sign onto the national Common Core program, Haslam now faces a backlash — both from critics on the left opposed to too much testing and those on the right who believe it ties Tennessee to a curriculum written by outsiders. The dispute has triggered a side battle over bias in textbooks.
TennCare expansion also remains an issue, even after his letter to Sebelius. If hospitals start to cut back — and some already have,including Vanderbilt University Medical Center — it does not appear that the governor will get much help in deflecting blame.
"He got elected to take heat. If he don't want to take heat, don't run again," Ramsey said. "He's taking heat, I guess you could say that. But it's not that big a deal."
Haslam does not seem to face much risk of a primary challenge, but he still is taking no chances. On the morning state lawmakers return to Nashville, Haslam will hold a "pre-session re-election breakfast" at the Omni Nashville Hotel. The event starts at $1,000 a person.
For this year's campaign, the Haslam team has created a new "Chairman's Circle" level for fundraisers who commit to bring in $100,000.
"I don't think that he will have a credible opponent," predicted Ramsey, who said he will go to the event. "But the governor at the same time needs to make sure he has the cash on hand to ward off an opponent."
It's a show of force that should make potential opponents wary.