Just weeks after House Republican Caucus chair Debra Maggart’s primary defeat, Tennessee’s GOP leadership is facing the prospect of another challenge from the party’s right wing.
State Rep. Judd Matheny told the Associated Press last week that he’s considering a challenge to House Speaker Beth Harwell for the chamber’s top spot. Matheny is currently the House speaker pro tempore, a position that, like speaker, is voted on by all members of the chamber.
Harwell faced opposition from the party’s conservative wing in 2010, when she defeated Rep. Glen Casada to become the first female House speaker in state history. Casada recently ruled out a rematch.
In an email, Harwell said she is “100 percent focused on the November elections.”
A challenge from Matheny, though, would be another flashpoint in an ongoing struggle between the party’s elected leadership in the state and a faction within its ranks that seems intent on challenging them at every turn. The size and strength of that group is still being tested, perhaps most directly by Matheny, who told The City Paper he is taking the temperature of the House GOP Caucus on the matter of who holds the gavel.
Matheny said he has “great admiration and great respect” for Harwell, but listed the leadership’s decision to compromise on a “core constitutional principle” as a primary motivation for a challenge. The current example, he said, is the so-called guns-in-lots bill — Maggart’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill played a large role in the loss of her seat — but added, “If it can be done in one area, it can and will be done in other areas.”
He also noted concern over a lack of “fortitude” to “counter some of the forces that are coming out of Washington” and said the state “shouldn’t even be considering the expansion of the health care law.”
Matheny’s primary grievance is his assertion that he’s been shut out and marginalized by those at the top.
“I am capable of much more,” he said. “I’m capable of being involved in much more in state government, and I don’t believe some of the members of leadership have fully taken advantage of that or fully allowed me to be the most I can be.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick called the charge “kind of silly.” He said competition for leadership positions is a positive thing, and he doesn’t begrudge Matheny a desire to run. However, he said Matheny was “hard to get in contact with and didn’t do much” during the past two years.
Matheny said he respects McCormick, but the two simply have a “difference of opinion” on the matter. Presented with the idea that there seemed to be a group of conservatives in the state who are eager to challenge the established leadership every chance they get, Matheny concurred.
“I think that’s a good observation,” he said. “I think you can break up the state into two categories. You have a group of what I call the ‘pathminders,’ who are happy, primarily, with the status quo, they understand that we do have some problems nationally that are severe, but their timeline is unrealistic to address them and deal with them. Then you have group that I call the ‘pathfinders,’ and I consider myself one of those.”
The latter group, he said, knows “we have to alter the trajectory that we’re on or we will not be able to survive.”
A main source of the group’s financial muscle is Andrew Miller Jr. A wealthy health care investor, Miller has emerged as perhaps the sharpest unelected thorn in the leadership’s side. Through two state level PACs, which he funded entirely on his own, he poured nearly $120,000 into state legislative primaries, mostly in support of conservatives challenging incumbents. Miller did contribute to several incumbents, though, including Jim Gotto, Jeremy Faison, and Tony Shipley (who, like Courtney Rogers, was on the receiving end of support from the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund).
Six Miller-supported candidates (including Gotto, who did not face an opponent) went on to win their primaries, including challengers Micah Van Huss, Timothy Hill, and Rogers.
Miller has also contributed thousands to the PAC that Matheny operates, and he and his wife have each contributed to Matheny directly. Matheny was not challenged in the primary, but faces Democrat Scott Price in the general election. He also gave $40,000 to Leaders of Tennessee, a PAC that supports conservative candidates around the state.
Miller and Matheny share a concern for the threat and supposed spread of Islamic Shariah law. A former Lou Ann Zelenik staffer, Miller contributed more than $260,000, through two super PACs, to Zelenik’s ultimately failed challenge of U.S. Rep. Diane Black. Miller and Zelenik have worked together leading Miller’s Tennessee Freedom Coalition — which lists educating “citizens on the realities of Shariah” and stopping “the growth of Radical Islam” as its top priority — and Miller is a member of the Chairman’s Circle of the Williamson County GOP, which recently denounced Gov. Bill Haslam’s hiring of Samar Ali, a Muslim and Tennessee native, as international director at the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
Miller did not respond to requests for comment for this article. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance is currently looking into whether Miller used his Truth Matters PAC as a conduit in an effort to get around the law capping campaign contributions from an individual. A spokesman told The City Paper that the bureau would take up the issue at a meeting Sept. 5, to determine whether contributions made through Truth Matters should be considered contributions from Miller.
Matheny, who publicly endorsed Zelenik and sponsored a bill in 2011 that originally would have criminalized the practice of Shariah law, said the issue is not a “defining factor” separating the two groups, but said apathy toward the issue is a problem.
McCormick dismissed the idea that the GOP leadership has not been conservative enough and said he thinks the challenge is based more in a thirst for power than ideological concerns.
“I don’t think it’s so much ideological as it is, Republicans are in the majority now,” he said. “If you run the Republican Party and the Republican caucus in the legislature, you basically run the state. So I think it has more to do with people wanting to be in power than anything else.”