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Outsiders Influence Tennessee Politics

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Apr 25, 2014

                 For the past decade, a common refrain among conservatives is that the people elect conservatives but never get small government.  Now there seems to be an organized effort by conservative, primarily libertarian, institutions to reverse this fact and remake the Tennessee GOP in their image.

For the past two years, the Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and Michelle Rhee’s Students First and the American Federation for Children, pro-school choice organizations, have run ads and lobbied state legislators for conservative legislation.   In this past legislative session alone, these groups pushed school vouchers and charter school triggers, to repeal the Hall income tax on dividends, to block the AMP (rapid transit project) in Nashville, and limit local government lobbying for more state spending. 

Overall, their efforts failed.  Their only success was blocking the AMP and preventing the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  However, the unpopularity of the president and health care reform doomed Medicaid expansion regardless of these groups’ efforts.

But to dismiss their lack of productivity would be a mistake because these groups are advancing a long term vision.  First, these groups want to use Tennessee, with its Republican supermajority, to enact conservative legislation that would be a model for the rest of the nation.  If their legislation passed and the reforms were successful, other states would copy the laws. Moreover, the laws would potentially be models for national laws like welfare and education reform were in the 1990s and Mitt Romney’s health care plan was a model for the ACA.

Second, these groups are creating a network of like-minded groups to which Republican officials must respond. One of the reasons that these groups were unproductive in the legislature is that they ran ads with no follow-up with legislators or they flew into Nashville to testify and then left town.  However, AFP is now creating a statewide chapter to raise awareness and build grassroots support for their positions.  Working with the already established TEA Parties, these groups will try to move Republicans further to the right.

Third, the groups are creating networks that provide policy and political information to state legislators, candidates, and party members.  Half of the Republican state legislators elected in the last two elections identify with or follow national conservative groups on social media while very few Republican legislators elected prior to 2010 do.  These networks suggest these groups will continue to influence the policies and political strategies of legislators for years to come.  

So what do these efforts mean for Tennessee? First, Tennessee politics will become more nationalized as outside groups play a larger role in state elections which will make elections more expensive and change debate to more national, ideological issues rather than local issues.

Second, the rise of very conservative Republican state legislators and candidates suggests the farm team of candidates for higher office in Tennessee will have more ideologues and fewer pragmatists likely to compromise such as our current governor and two Senators. 

Third, the fight between establishment and libertarians in the GOP will continue.  The rise of the conservative groups will lead to a relative decline in influence among local and state business elites. Consequently, the business wing of the party will counter with their own policy and political organizations to advance their interests. 

A version of this appeared in the April 25th edition of The Jackson Sun