O’Hara: GOP takes hard right turn in Tennessee

A guest column from former Tennessean reporter Jim O’Hara:

In calling the misguided immigration bill “a solution looking for a problem” while letting it become law without signing, Gov. Bill Haslam could well have been describing the Tennessee Republican gubernatorial primary.

Tennessee gubernatorial candidates talk education during SCORE event at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, January 23, 2018. (Photo credit: Belmont University)

The frontrunners – Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and U.S. Rep. Diane Black – have blanketed the television airwaves with commercials trying to out-Trump each other in anti-illegal immigration rhetoric.  Maybe the next round of commercials will have each of them on the Texas-Mexico border with shovels and bricks in hand building THE WALL!

The Pew Research Center tracks data on immigration.  According to its latest report in November 2016, the population of unauthorized immigrants in the United States held steady between 2009 and 2014.  Pew estimated the unauthorized immigrant population in Tennessee in 2014 at 120,000, or 1.9% of the state’s population.  Unauthorized immigrants in Tennessee in 2014 accounted for an estimated 2.8% of the state’s labor force.  And the change in the population of unauthorized immigrants in Tennessee between 2009 and 2014 was not statistically significant, according to the Pew researchers.

Even more striking than the difference between the “reality” of the Boyd and Black campaign commercials and the reality of unauthorized immigrants in Tennessee is the difference between their campaign television ad priorities and what current state Republican officeholders say about the state of the state.

Following the just completed legislative session, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally claimed success for an agenda of maintaining the state’s Triple-A bond rating, keeping taxes low and making investments in health and education.  Now, some may want to quibble with that assessment given the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid, but the broader point is that Republicans are firmly in control of the state’s government and have been for years.

In short, Boyd and Black are running against their own party, for all intents and purposes.

The Tea Party insurgency of a decade ago that fueled the GOP supermajorities in the General Assembly but was blocked, or at least stymied, by a moderate Republican governor is now in its Trumpified form storming the last redoubt on Capitol Hill.

Some Tennessee Republicans may harbor the hope that Boyd’s recent foray into anti-immigrant rhetoric masks a basic moderate philosophy a la Haslam, but it seems clear that each campaign’s polling and focus group research shows the path to victory in the GOP primary lays to the hard right.

The bitter irony of this cannot be lost on the Tennessee Republicans who made Tennessee a genuine two-party state in the 1960s and 1970s.  They were the insurgents then.  Breaking out of voting patterns that had held mostly steady since the end of the Civil War, they expanded the GOP’s ability to get votes statewide out of the traditional East Tennessee ballot boxes into the Memphis suburbs, Chattanooga and eventually Middle Tennessee.  Fueled with a mixture of good government reform (against the Crump machine in Memphis and the Clement-Ellington gubernatorial leapfrog game) and the cynical and racist Nixon Southern strategy, they elected a Republican governor for the first time in 50 years, captured both U.S. Senate seats, and began to take over the state’s congressional delegation.

But those Republican insurgents ran toward the middle, even in their primaries.  And they did their best to smooth the edges of their right wing. They have become the Establishment.

So if Haslam believes that the immigration bill is “a solution looking for a problem” why didn’t he use his veto power? A cynic might suggest that Haslam’s course of action on the immigration bill was an attempt not to add more kerosene to the GOP’s primary Trump bonfire, hoping there might still be some sort of a middle way for Republicans in Tennessee, hoping to smooth the edges one more time.

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Jim O’Hara covered state and national politics for The Tennessean in the 1980s.

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