Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
The tea party activists who helped shake up Tennessee politics two years ago hope to expand their influence in the fall, but some signs suggest their force at the ballot box may be limited.
Buoyed by the fruits of redistricting, which came on the heels of the Republican Party’s big win in the 2010 midterm elections, tea party groups see new opportunities to nudge the state in a more conservative direction.
But unlike in Indiana, Texas and many other states where their clout has resounded loudly, Tennessee’s tea party groups have not yet rallied around a slate of candidates, lowering the likelihood that they will be able to tip the balance in races this fall.
Canny positioning by the state’s GOP politicians and a long tradition of electing moderates appear to have taken steam out of the tea party movement. Fractured and leaderless, tea party groups in Tennessee are largely pursuing their own priorities in the August Republican primary and November’s general election.
That makes it difficult for any to mount the sort of upset bid that has already claimed U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in Indiana and carried former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz into a runoff for a U.S. Senate seat from that state.
Tennessee’s tea parties have made their presence felt at the local level. Last week, a tea party rally at the Limelight nightclub in Nashville drew scores of activists eager to mobilize against plans for a Metro property tax increase.
Tea party groups have now set their sights on picking off a few members of the state legislature, in the hope of reshaping its leadership. In that effort, they have found common cause with the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates who are incensed at Republican leaders.
But even in that effort they have struggled to settle on which members to go after.
The situation in Tennessee may indicate a broader problem for the tea party movement. While effective in sparking a debate about debt and taxes, the grass-roots movement has sometimes struggled to bridge the gap between talking politics and shaking them up.
“They’re very good at framing the debate,” said Andrea Hatcher, a professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee. “That does not always produce at the ballot box.”
Twenty-one incumbent Republicans in the state House of Representatives face primary challenges, as do three incumbent Republican senators.
That could suggest some grass-roots dissatisfaction with the GOP after it took control of the state Capitol in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction. It could also figure into higher approval ratings for Gov. Bill Haslam, who occasionally tried to pull his fellow Republicans back from more extreme legislation this past session.
GOP leaders dispute the notion that it represents any broad-based unease with the overall direction of the party.
“I think that’s just a sign of the Republican Party growing,” said Adam Nickas, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party. “People are interested in being involved.”
Tea party activists clearly see opportunities.
Last week, several jointly announced that the Tennessee Conservatives Fund, a political action committee supported by tea party groups, had chosen the first challenger it would endorse: Scott Hughes, a financial officer at a church, who is running against state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville.
The endorsement came on the heels of an announcement by the 8th District Tea Party Coalition that it would take aim at House Republican Caucus Chair Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, in her race against former Bridgestone Americas communications manager and tea party activist Courtney Rogers.
But with only two months to go until the Republican primary, the ability to produce an upset in either race may be limited.
The Tennessee Conservatives Fund had only $26 in its coffers as of March 31, according to campaign finance records, suggesting its endorsement carries little more than moral support.
And it was Maggart’s campaign for re-election that appeared to receive a boost when her district’s biggest tea party group, Sumner United for Responsible Government, announced it would sit the race out even though Rogers had been its president until she decided to run for office.
“We feel both women are excellent candidates each with their own unique strengths and perspectives and each will serve us in the state legislature in their own way,” the group said in a statement released last month.
Tea party groups have also discussed trying to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. But even tea party activists see limits to their chances.
“We hope to be able to get two out of the three,” said David Nance, chairman of the 8th District Tea Party Coalition.
Tea party groups have had little success building support for a challenger in the statewide race at the top of the ticket.
Zach Poskevich, a political newcomer from Hendersonville, has actively courted tea party endorsements and has drawn the support of many activists. But his U.S. Senate campaign had raised less than $40,000 when reports were last filed with the Federal Election Commission in April.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the incumbent, had raised nearly $10 million.
“Corker has not given them anything to defeat him with,” said Sean Evans, chairman of the political science department at Union University in Jackson. “He’s made it so no one can get to the right of him to defeat him in the primary but not so far that a Democrat could run against him as too conservative.”
Polling data suggest Tennesseans hold ambivalent views of the tea party.
About one-third of Tennesseans told Vanderbilt University pollsters in early May that they support the tea party’s ideas, a portion that rose to nearly two-thirds among Tennesseans who identify themselves as Republicans.
But among those same Tennessee Republicans, support for Haslam, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander and Corker – the only three Tennessee politicians elected statewide – also topped two-thirds. Tea party activists have criticized all three as too moderate.
“It’s not that there has been an erosion of support for moderate Republicans in the state so much as they’re being bullied off the stage,” said Marcus Pohlmann, a professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis. “You’ve got kind of a combination of loud and amplified voices intimidating the moderate candidates.
“I don’t think this is unique to Tennessee. I think it’s all across the country.”