Column: On bold Bill Haslam, Trump turmoil and down-ballot TN races

The political winds have been blowing rather strongly against Tennessee Republicans in the handful of legislative races where the party’s candidates must face general election storms Nov. 8, inspiring Democrats to hope for a tornado or two touching down in isolated areas of the state.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a political environment where developments have fallen into place more favorably for the state’s minority party than this year. And a striking thing is that the face of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam may be seen in the clouds that have formed over the Tennessee GOP as the winds blow – most recently in a declaration that he will not vote for Donald Trump and thinks the billionaire celebrity should resign as the party’s presidential nominee.

That’s about the boldest thing Haslam has ever done politically, rivaled only by his proposal for a modified Medicaid expansion plan that was curtly rejected by the Legislature’s Republican Supermajority as an embrace of Obamacare, wildly unpopular in GOP circles generally. Trump, in accord with all the state’s Republican congressmen and most of the party’s legislators, want to repeal it.

Democratic legislators, on the other hand, uniformly embrace Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan and are uniformly using it in their campaigns this fall against GOP opponents. Polls have shown that Haslam’s proposal, which he has abandoned pending some potential post-November change in the political environment, enjoys strong majority support among Tennessee voters overall.

After Haslam’s alleged-but-debatable embrace of Obamacare and before his extraordinarily-open trashing of Trump, both going against the GOP flow, there was the Jeremy Durham affair. The Republican representative from Franklin was voted out of office last month after being authoritatively accused in an attorney general’s report of sexually harassing women.

The governor had called on Durham to resign long before to the expulsion vote, basically backing the position taken by House Speaker Beth Harwell, a longtime Haslam political ally who deserted him on Insure Tennessee but who is now striving to come up with some sort of compromise alternative while eying a run to succeed him as governor in 2018. She’s currently running TV ads featuring Haslam’s endorsement in her own campaign for reelection to a Nashville House seat.

Haslam’s call for resignation of Trump as GOP presidential nominee came after a national uproar over a video suggesting Trump once engaged in sexual harassment that arguably exceeds any of Durham’s alleged doings. He is thus being consistent in taking positions.

That is not the case for other Republican officeholders who have uniformly denounced sexual harassment while declaring support for Trump as the party nominee with curious variations, though basically boiling down to Trump being the lesser of two evils given that his opponent is Hillary Clinton. In the Durham debacle, all Republicans denounced sexual harassment, though some are also denouncing Harwell for her tactics in giving Durham the boot and Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, is running against her reelection by House Republicans as speaker.

In this remarkable environment, then, we have Republicans splintered – Haslam versus Trump? — and Democrats pretty much united behind Haslam. Tennessee Democratic Chair Mary Mancini says Haslam “did the right thing and should be applauded” for trashing Trump. (Naturally, she and other Democrats still bash him on some other things.)

Theoretically, the Trump trauma should have downballot consequences. At the national level, there’s much GOP concern that Trump and associated bickering will drag down U.S. Senate and House candidates. In Tennessee, there’s no such concern because there are no competitive congressional races.

That leaves the legislative races as the next step for any Trump trickle-down impact. There are only a dozen or so that are actually somewhat competitive, thanks to gerrymandering of districts, but there are a lot of long-shot Democrats running and every now and then a “hail Mary” pass connects in politics as well as football.

In the few contested races, there are valid reasons for Republican concern, as indicated by some candidates trying to distance themselves from Trump, voicing support for something like Insure Tennessee and dodging discussion of Durham and/or the recent Democratic push for a follow-up investigation of another Republican legislator. (On the other hand, one hears that polling in some solidly Republican districts indicates a big turnout coming by Trump backers.)

But none of the GOP legislative candidates, so far, have been so bold as Haslam; that could undercut their support within the Republican conservative base and a strong faction of Trump advocates. Indeed, the governor’s move has been seen by some as writing off GOP right wing populists, indicating he has decided to quit politics after his term ends.

That’s not likely. Instead, the Haslam maneuver, if not founded on principle, may be seen as strategic positioning with an eye toward the post-Trump Republican future. And it’s just possible some Republican candidates for lesser office will wish they had been as bold.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The original version is HERE.

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