Tennessee legislative primaries a mixed bag for GOP

On August 5, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

By Richard Locker, CommercialAppeal.com
August 5, 2012

NASHVILLE — Thursday’s state legislative primary results likely signal more infighting among Republicans in the next two-year legislative term, particularly between the GOP’s pro-business and tea party wings in the House.

Seven Republican incumbent House members lost to intraparty challengers, four of them to candidates who were backed by local tea party groups. The most notable was the defeat of House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville by Courtney Rogers, who had strong tea party backing.

Maggart also was heavily targeted by the Tennessee Firearms Association, which recruited grassroots campaign workers for Rogers, and the National Rifle Association, which spent at least $78,000 in the closing weeks. As the third-ranking House Republican, Maggart had joined Gov. Bill Haslam and other House leaders in blocking the NRA-backed guns-in-parking-lots bill that would have banned businesses and other property owners from prohibiting employees and others from bringing guns onto their property as long as they were kept in locked cars.

The NRA sought to make an example of Maggart to other Republicans, and it has served notice it will push “to secure passage” of the bill next year.

Also falling was House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, a moderate who lost to a tea party-endorsed challenger. Montgomery favored charter schools and many conservative education reforms but questioned school vouchers, which will be back on the agenda next year.

The election was a mixed bag for more conservative challengers, however. Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, won handily over challengers from their right who were expected to be more substantial vote-getters.

All together, 21 of the 64 House Republicans faced intraparty challenges — including some by moderates — and 14 of them survived. Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, a business-oriented conservative, won by five votes over socially conservative Eagle Forum activist Shirley Curry. Conservative Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, won by 11 over a more moderate challenger.

It’s now on to the Nov. 6 general election, where the central question is whether Republicans can pick up the two seats they need in both the House and Senate to achieve two-thirds majorities, enough that potential walkouts by Democrats would not halt business.

“I think that’s an attainable goal,” said State GOP Chairman Chris Devaney. “When I go around and talk with Republican voters, what they don’t want to see is what happened in Wisconsin, where state senators walked out and allowed no legislation to pass. I’m not saying the Democrats here would necessarily do that but we just want to be sure.”

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson said Democrats have a shot at picking up Senate seats but not a majority.

In West Tennessee, Democrats hope to hold on to the Senate District 24 seat vacated by Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and win the District 26 seat held by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, who faces Democrat Meryl Rice. Republican John Stevens and Democrat Brad Thompson are vying for the open District 24 seat.

Numerically, Republicans are assured of holding the Senate this fall because 11 Republican incumbents are not up for election and six who are, including Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, have no opposition in November, assuring the GOP of 17 of the 33 Senate seats. They currently hold 20.

Of the 10 contested Senate races, two are held by Republican incumbents, two are held by Democratic incumbents and six are for open seats with no incumbents running.

In the House, where all 99 seats are up for election this year, 31 Republicans have no November opposition compared to 14 Democrats.

Of the 54 contested races, two Republicans and one Democrat face only long-shot independent candidates. That leaves 27 Republican incumbents facing Democratic challengers, nine Democratic incumbents facing GOP challenges and independent Rep. Kent Williams facing a Republican challenger. There are 14 open races with no incumbents.

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