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Front Page - Friday, October 13, 2017

View from the Hill: Trump’s bluster cascades through TN politics

The chaos emanating from President Donald Trump’s administration is changing the landscape of Tennessee politics, setting the stage for upheaval within the dominant Republican Party.

“This is a really big moment for the Tennessee Republican Party,” with the Trump wing or far-right wing “firmly in control,” says Kent Syler, Middle Tennessee State University political science professor.

“When you have center-right, pro-business moderates like Bob Corker and Bill Haslam walk away and basically decide they can do something else rather than go through a primary battle with the right wing of the party, that’s a significant moment.”

Corker’s recent decision not to seek another six-year U.S. Senate term was hardly surprising, considering his outspoken stance on Trump’s bombastic management style, at one point calling it a “downward spiral.”

The conflict escalated in a Trump Twitter tirade Sunday when he said Corker “begged” for a Senate endorsement, as well as the vice presidency, then didn’t have the “guts” to run for another third term. He also blamed Corker for the Iran nuclear deal, which he often terms as “very, very bad.”

Corker responded by calling the White House an “adult day care center” and tweeting, “Someone apparently missed their shift this morning.”

Nothing like a childish argument to start the week. It does seem, though, as if Trump gets up every day trying to find his next victim, so Corker deserves a pass on trying to defend himself against the president of the United States and his sixth-grade bully mentality.

No wonder Bill Haslam said no thanks.

Though speculation focused on a potential Haslam run for Corker’s open seat, the governor quickly quelled those notions, appearing to want to distance himself from the gridlock in Washington, D.C., where he says ideologues are ruling the day. Haslam is hardly a Trumpist, refusing to support him in the 2016 election and keeping his distance in 2017.

On the other hand, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who spoke in favor of Trump at the Republican Convention last year, is playing up to the president, framing herself as an outsider even though she’s been in Congress since 2002.

In announcing her Senate candidacy shortly after Haslam backed out, Blackburn made her own significant pronouncements, hitting every social hot button on the planet, from abortion and gun control to the national anthem and Trump’s Mexican wall, along with proclaiming pride in being called a “knuckle-dragging” conservative.

“Her strategy is to get so far to the right that no one can get to the right of her,” Syler explains. “So, her minor gamble is to completely write off the Democratic Party. She has, in essence, said the right wing of the Republican Party controls elections in the state, and as long as I get the nomination it’s over.”

It’ll be interesting to see whether she can position herself to the right of Americans for Prosperity Executive Director Andy Ogles, who previously announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, a move that seemed planned to pre-empt a Haslam run.

Keeping masses off balance

Getting back to the tempest orchestrated by our commander-in-chief. While liberals and moderates chastise him as “unhinged,” based largely on Twitter tantrums and off-the-cuff comments, his base loves unsolicited guff, such as calls for the firing of NFL players who refuse to stand and salute the flag during the anthem.

Never mind that polls show more than half of the country is irritated by his comments, because most Americans also believe athletes should stand instead of taking a knee. It’s hardly black and white.

But for those who believe right is right and wrong is wrong, such as U.S. Rep. Diane Black, the landscape is perfect for her ascension to the Tennessee governor’s office.

So far, she is behind only former state Sen. Mae Beavers on the conservative scale, but just barely. And as one of the wealthiest members of Congress, she can run without worrying about raising money.

Moderates and nice guys such as businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee, who considers himself a conservative, will have a hard time fitting in to this seismic shift, one in which Trump’s tweets infuriate more than half the country but find traction among people who enjoy the candor, no matter how many people it hurts.

Asked whether Trump is forcing mainstream, moderate Republicans out of Tennessee politics, state Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden made this statement: “Senator Corker and Governor Haslam’s decisions to not seek election in 2018 were based on previous campaign promises and personal conviction. Next year promises to have a strong field of Republican candidates in both the Senate and gubernatorial races.

“Whomever our party nominates for governor and senator next August will take on the mantel of fiscal responsibility, economic growth, decreased unemployment and an expansion of educational opportunities for all Tennesseans. They won’t take it on because they are perceived as coming from one wing of the party or another, but because they are Republicans and the success Tennessee has seen is because of Republican policies.”

That’s funny: Did Marsha Blackburn mention the economic and educational successes of Gov. Haslam during her announcement? Ogles isn’t touting the governor’s gas tax/tax break plan either, even though it’s supposed to expedite construction on the state’s crumbling road and bridge system.

Another question: Does anyone remember Corker and Haslam making promises not to run for election in 2018? Golden is right about one thing: Their “personal conviction” appears to be keeping them on the sidelines.

Sounding off

Finally unfettered after saying he wouldn’t seek another term, Corker took his initial jab at the president’s style a week ago, saying Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly are continually undermined.

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and formerly a candidate for Secretary of State, Corker pointed out those three people “help separate our country from chaos,” yet from his perspective Tillerson is in an “incredibly frustrating place,” one in which he isn’t supported the way a Secretary of State should be backed. While Tillerson tries to use diplomacy to defuse North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Trump prefers name-calling.

“They work very well together to make sure that the policies we put forth around the world are sound and coherent. There are other people within the administration, in my belief, that don’t. OK. I’m sorry,” Corker told reporters.

Based on his latest comments, he’s talking about the president.

Tillerson also reportedly called Trump a “moron” at one point but plays that off and says he is still doing the president’s will as Secretary of State.

Corker and Haslam, though, clearly are not at Trump’s beck and call, so there’s no room for them in Washington, at least not now.

Indeed, Syler acknowledges he was surprised when Haslam opened the door to a possible U.S. Senate run after eight years as mayor of Knoxville and seven years as governor.

Haslam had to weigh several thoughts, Syler points out, ranging from whether he wanted to go to Washington, D.C. in the next stage of life, whether he could be an effective governor while running for Senate and how hard a battle he would face from the “far right” of the Republican Party.

“When you put all those things together, you probably, say, ‘There’s better ways to spend my time,’” Syler says.

As is typical for Haslam, he downplays the Trump factor on his decision, saying he has a good relationship with people in the president’s administration.

“I’m sure in a primary people would have brought it up,” he says of friction between them.

Yet, if he does decide to opt for a Senate run, which he isn’t ruling out, another opportunity could open for 2020 if Sen. Lamar Alexander doesn’t seek another term. Alexander will be 80 years by then and could be reaching the end of his political life.

“(Haslam) won’t have the problem of completing his gubernatorial term, and maybe the political climate will be better for moderate Republicans,” Syler explains.

Legislative impact

This right shift doesn’t bode well for House Speaker Beth Harwell, either, as she makes her gubernatorial bid.

Harwell was tepid on Haslam’s infrastructure improvement plan and opposes Medicaid expansion, as well, but she is hardly leading the charge to push transgender kids into the abyss. Yet, her decision to run for governor opens the way for a new House speaker in 2018, creating another opening for an ultra-conservative, someone in the vein of Rep. Glen Casada, already House Republican leader, to gain more control.

The Franklin Republican, remember, didn’t support Haslam’s gas tax/tax cut plan but didn’t exactly oppose it either and was absent on the final vote this session.

Where Democrats stand

Blackburn is leaving an opening for Democrats by completely disregarding the idea that some Tennesseans think the world is round. The other party will have to find the right candidate who can unite people in the middle.

James Mackler, an Army veteran and attorney, is hoping to fill that bill. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a former state senator, is believed to be seriously considering a run for Senate too.

But while the state’s four biggest cities have Democratic mayors, their influencing isn’t translating statewide. Outside of urban areas, Trump rolled to victory in 2016.

But while Trump is strong for now, Syler points out, his political stock could plummet next week.

“Right now, the base is solidly behind him. But it’s a volatile situation. Who knows what the Donald Trump situation will be next November,” Syler adds.

In fact, Trump’s management style appears to be divide and conquer, and that includes pitting Americans against each other as well. Because while most Americans would rather have a moderate in office, someone socially liberal and fiscally conservative, Trump and his legions seem to want complete control – from the bedroom to the board table.

And while that might seem great for ultra-conservative Republicans in mid-2017, it could be their undoing in just a couple of years, because if there’s no room for Corker and Haslam, they’re discarding their best playing cards.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.