published Saturday, March 30th, 2013

Bill ending U.S. Senate primaries in state has a shot

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Should we have U.S. Senate primaries?

NASHVILLE — A bill taking away Tennesseans' ability to select U.S. Senate party nominees in primaries and hand the decision-making over to 132 state lawmakers has an even chance or better of passage, Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramey says.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, comes up for a state Senate floor vote on Monday.

"If you'd asked me that in January, I'd have said no," Ramsey told reporters this week. "If you ask me now, I think it's at least 50/50."

The bill would end Republican and Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate and instead let the respective party caucuses in the state House and Senate decide who the nominee is.

Voters would still decide the general election contest between the nominees.

Lawmakers can't fiddle with the general election because states ratified the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and stripped legislatures of their power to appoint senators. The original Constitution gave the power to legislatures.

Niceley says his legislation is intended to help restore the balance between federal power and state sovereignty that was intended by the nation's founding fathers.

"Everyone agrees that Washington is broke," Niceley told Senate State and Local Government Committee members this week. He said his bill will allow lawmakers to "pick a good man or a woman that we know can work with us. ... When we send them a resolution at least they'll respond to us."

He said the 17th Amendment was passed in a "mad rush" of Progressivism that also saw the establishment of a federal income tax and the Federal Reserve.

It's unclear whether any state puts the nominations in the hands of state legislators.

The measure also advanced through a House subcommittee this week. Under an amendment, should it pass, it would not take effect until Nov. 30, 2014. That's after the primary and general election of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is running for re-election to a third six-year term.

States passed the 17th Amendment in response to outcries that powerful special interests like railroads were buying legislators' votes in order to get senators of their liking.

"As nerdy as this sounds, I've actually read about that," said state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. "That's exactly what it was. They so heavily influenced the legislatures that they felt they were buying U.S. senators. [But] going back another round, [the bill] also takes it out of the hands of the Washington, D.C., fundraisers and lobbyists and consultants who help these candidates get elected" today.

McCormick said he finds the idea "intriguing." Currently, there are 70 GOP House members and 26 Republican senators. Democrats have 28 House members and seven senators.

Contested U.S. Senate primaries have run upward of a half million voters.

Asked what voters might make of the idea, McCormick quipped, "Well, I know one constituent who probably wouldn't. His name's Bob Corker," a U.S. senator from Chattanooga.

Corker is up for re-election in 2018 and would be affected should the bill pass and he runs for re-election. A Corker spokeswoman on Friday offered no comment on the bill.

"I'm not ready to sign on the bill yet," McCormick said. "From a practical standpoint, it would make it more possible for someone who's not a multi-millionaire, who can easily raise millions of dollars to have a chance to be a nominee for the U.S. Senate. That's the positive to it.

"Of course, the negative is it takes it out of the hands of the people," McCormick said.

In last year's U.S. Senate primary, Corker won almost 340,000 votes over a little-known field of challengers. Democrats, meanwhile, suffered a national embarrassment when virtual unknown Mark Clayton won their primary. He turned out to be an anti-gay rights activist and the party disavowed him.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.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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