The day after Republicans snatched up supermajorities on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill, Democrats fought a largely losing battle to remain relevant.
But the real action was taking place elsewhere.
Republicans who spent decades dreaming about this day were realizing the depth of what they had gotten themselves into.
The party — which is not nearly as monolithic as its candidates would make the party sound on the campaign trail — now has an overwhelming 70 state representatives and 27 senators occupying Capitol Hill, along with a midterm Republican governor.
Among them is a diverse group of people coming into office with their own priorities, categorized by interests in regional, urban, rural, constitutional, small government and business areas — and everywhere in between.
But in a group so big, those interests lend themselves to factions, voting blocks, cliques or at least something like it.
“There are a lot of things that are going to be a challenge for this caucus to stay unified,” said Rep. Joe Carr, a three-term Republican from Lascassas.
With enough members to run either chamber of the General Assembly itself, there is plenty of reason for parties to grow within themselves. That’s because Republicans at their core are independent, said Carr, himself part of a class of grassroots Republicans elected to office in the beginning of the tea party era.
“We don’t function in bureaucracies like our Democratic counterparts,” he said. “And so the task of herding 70 members will not be unlike herding cats.”
The last time the majority party in the House had more than 65 members was in 1977, when Democrats ran the show. Before that, Democrats always occupied at least two-thirds of both chambers from 1901 until 1967.
Now they are on the opposite side of that equation. The day after the election, top Democrats — who have been rendered unnecessary by the new Republican majorities — tried to spin their losses as a win for their party, which managed to ward off further cuts into the caucus.
As content as Democrats are to sit back and watch Republicans juggle their new majorities, they say they’ll be a player on legislation that one faction might push over the other.
“If they need our votes on a good bill for people of Tennessee that we can reach across the aisle and work with them, we’re there for it,” said Rep. Mike Turner, an Old Hickory Democrat and chairman of the House Democrats’ 28-member caucus.
“But some of those people, they’re against breathing, so they’re never going to go along with what we’re trying to do here,” he said.
Cut the Republican caucus in a multitude of ways and you’ll find varying interests. But like a Venn diagram, swaths of Republicans overlap multiple voting blocks.
Take the chief faction: leadership.
High-ranking members of each chambers’ GOP leadership share most of the same goals, namely pushing Gov. Bill Haslam’s priorities.
Leadership is chiefly directed by House Speaker Beth Harwell — who closely aligns herself with the governor — and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. In the past two years, it was rare for the two legislative leaders to not see eye-to-eye with the governor. And when they don’t, it’s worked out quickly and behind closed doors.
This group also has to think about the next election two years down the road, and tries to make sure the legislation their fellow Republicans have to vote on isn’t a politically risky issue that will come back to haunt them in the next primary or general election.
Oftentimes, because of their own backgrounds, leadership’s interests are synonymous with those of another group: business.
This class’s key is to make the state more attractive and friendly to business, with priorities such as reducing business regulations, enticing businesses with economic development grants, reforming workers compensation rules or capping legal damages.
“They’re all business-oriented in terms of, what do we have to do to appease and make big business happy,” said John Harris, executive director of the Tennessee Firearm Association.
Harris went to blows with leadership after high-ranking GOP leadership blocked a vote on the so called “guns in lots” bill that would have let gun owners legally store their firearms in their cars parked on company property.
“They’re perfectly content to kiss the insurance industry or the medical industry and try to make this a better environment for them, even if that means stomping on constitutional rights of the citizens,” said Harris.
Those same gun rights folks often overlap with “constitutionalist” lawmakers who argue on issues like how the government should follow the state’s guiding document by popularly electing high-court judges or argue for state sovereignty from the federal government.
The group of constitutional champions is expected to grow with the addition of several newly elected members who were largely carried to office with the help of thousands of dollars from gun rights interests.
Another brand of Republican is the type that wants to shrink the size of government. Die-hards want to take it a step further. Some have disdain for the idea that government decides winners and losers in business by handing out millions of taxpayer dollars in economic incentives — which butts heads with those who actively want to hand out that money to companies it can lure to enter or expand in the state.
But some of the biggest voting blocks within the Republican majorities will likely fall on geographic lines, lawmakers of all stripes say.
Legislators naturally band together on issues affecting whichever Grand Division of Tennessee (East, Middle or West) they hail from, regardless of party. The same goes for legislation drawing a line in the sand between rural and urban issues.
Take education. Lawmakers like Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin worry that schools in his affluent suburban district should push harder on teaching students foreign languages. Whereas lawmakers in more rural areas are focused on giving their schools tools to turn around weak test scores.
Or economic development. Urban lawmakers would love to see more business headquarters relocate to their areas, whereas rural lawmakers are more concerned with getting manufacturing or other such industries to call their districts home.
High-ranking Republican leaders pooh-poohed suggestions that the next two years could reveal party infighting, but don’t deny there are a plethora of opinionated lawmakers taking up residence on Capitol Hill for the next two years who they’ll have to keep their eyes on.
That job will fall squarely on the shoulders of leadership — especially in the House. Of the 70 Republicans in the lower chamber, 18 are freshman.
“It’s going to be on Speaker Beth Harwell and her tight-knit lieutenants to keep it under control and to keep them focused on a broad base of interest, rather than some little, isolated independent direction,” said Wayne Scharber, interim president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and a key fan of the pro-business crowd.
The job is considerably easier in the Senate, which is one-third the size of the House. There, Ramsey has eight freshmen to handle when he bangs the gavel in January.
“When people become a part of the Republican Caucus, they don’t stop thinking for themselves. I’ve always allowed members to have their own viewpoints,” said the on-message Harwell.
But when asked in a room full of reporters exactly how she expects to wrangle a 70-member caucus that has “a lot of cats to herd,” her eyes darted and it took her a few seconds to respond.
“I just do the best I can,” she said quietly.
“I know every one of these freshmen. I know their heart; I know how hard they worked to be here. I think they’re going to be hardworking, good legislators.”