published Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Super majority for Tennessee GOP could fuel infighting

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Jubilant Tennessee Republicans are celebrating the "super majorities" they won in last week's legislative elections, but history shows that may not always guarantee smooth sledding for the GOP, leaders and observers say.

Narrow majorities tend to generate a "lot of pressure for you to unite against a common foe," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. But "when you've got an excess of votes, there may be personal ambitions, ideological [differences] and whatever else that may come to the fore, and cracks may then begin to appear."

A super majority in each chamber -- a two-thirds majority of 22 senators and 66 representatives -- would allow Republicans to cut off debate at will and suspend rules, among other advantages.

Republicans already dominated the state House and Senate entering the election, with House Republicans holding a 64-34 majority over Democrats with one independent, who usually sides with the GOP. In the Senate, they ruled with a 20-13 majority over Democrats. Last week, Senate Republicans picked up six more seats, boosting their majority to 26-7 over Democrats.

In percentages, though, it was the second largest gain for Republicans in a state Senate across the entire U.S., according to figures posted on the nonpartisan Governing magazine's website.

In the House, Republicans grew their majority by six seats as well, giving them 70 votes, the fourth highest percentage gain in the country. In the Senate, the state tied for second place with Alaska in percentage growth.

Republican strengths over the past two years gave them advantages in votes to eliminate collective bargaining for teachers and eliminate the estate tax. But it also generated divisions among GOP members in areas such as school vouchers and a National Rifle Association bill that would have allowed employees to store firearms in their locked vehicles on company property.

"I think we'll be as unified as possible, but with that many members there'll be diverse views," House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said. "We won't march in lock step. ... I just think the sheer numbers of it make it inevitable we're not going to agree on everything every time."

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, who also is lieutenant governor, has acknowledged there could be a downside at times to a super majority.

"It's a natural tendency in any organization ... that when one party gets dominant, then the fighting becomes within and not with the opposing party," Ramsey said.

Symbolically speaking, having a super majority and absolute power is a pretty heady experience for the GOP. Republicans last enjoyed one during post-Civil War Reconstruction days in the 1860s.

Until the mid-2000s, however, Democrats ruled the roost and held super majorities on any number of occasions, the most recently being in the 1960s.

But that sometimes led to factional infighting.

The best-known instance occurred in 1987 when then-Democratic Speaker John Wilder lost the speakership race in the Democratic Caucus but won on the Senate floor with a coalition of conservative white and liberal black Democrats and all the Republicans. Wilder held power until 2007 when Republicans under Ramsey, along with a single Democrat, ousted him.

While Republicans see the benefits of total control, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, warned they will face their own problems.

"There are essentially three parties out there now: the Republicans, the Democrats and the tea party," Fitzhugh said last week. "We know who's driving the car, and it's the Republicans, and we clearly understand that, but they're the ones that have it on their shoulders right now."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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