Political Chain Reaction


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Many Tennesseans grew up in the shadow of Oak Ridge, home of the Atomic Bomb (in fact, some of the RTP crew come from the vicinity of the Secret City. We know this because they sometimes glow in the dark – they’re great fun at parties). As a result most of us know the basics of a scientific phenomenon called a “chain reaction” — where atoms smash into each other in ever-increasing numbers until it reaches “critical mass,” that results in either a controlled (think nuclear reactor) or an explosive (think Hiroshima) result.

Is Tennessee about to experience the political equivalent of a chain reaction?

Rumors are ricocheting off the walls in Tennessee’s political world regarding the 2018 elections. Undoubtedly, some of what we will present here won’t happen, and some new angles we don’t cover will emerge. But there is a certain logic to the rumors, and they are accompanied by considerable circumstantial evidence as to their validity.

Throw into this radioactive brew the desire of the establishment Republicans (Haslam, the donor class, etc.) to control the chain reaction by signaling to their allies and preferred candidates that something is up and trying to arrange the pieces on the chess board before other candidates have a chance to get organized. Sometimes attempts to control chain reactions work, but more often they do not (see: “Trump, the Donald”).

The scenarios are endless, but most repeat a central theme. And they all start with:

The Big Bang Theory: Lamar Resigns.

big bang 3Oh, come on now, don’t tell us you haven’t heard this one. Anyone who hangs out at Jimmy Kelly’s or the LP cafeteria has heard it. Lamar’s health, and/or the fragile health of his wife Honey, will necessitate his resignation before his term is up in 2020. When will that happen? Best guess is sometime after this year’s general election, but well before 2018. Such an event would result in Gov. Haslam naming a temporary replacement, followed by a possible 2-year wait until the 2018 election to fill out the last two years of Lamar’s term (see the “Beavers/Littleton Variable below).

If that happens, buckle up boys & girls, we are about to take a ride on the political chain reaction merry-go-round.

We will begin with one of the most recent developments:

Steve Fincher retires from Congress.

Many have assumed for a long time the Farmer from Frog Jump would seek higher office. Perhaps Governor, perhaps U.S. Senate. Personal reasons are cited for his not running for re-election and there is probably a measure of truth Fincher needs to attend to problems within his immediate family and with his business.

But with over $2,000,000 left in his campaign bank account, speculation centers on Fincher’s future ambitions and Lamar’s senate seat. The senate seat would allow him to transfer all $2 million of the congressional campaign fund to a senate campaign fund. Even so, he would probably join a line of competitors. But in the Unified Theory of Grand Political Conspiracies, a Fincher run for the senate fits quite nicely.

Diane Black runs for Senate (or is it Governor?)

Black’s decision is key. Her ambition is well-known (just ask Marsha Blackburn, Beth Harwell, Lou Ann Zelnick and Jim Tracy). She possesses great personal wealth and could self-fund (that blur you saw flash by was Tom Ingram looking for another client). But Tom may already have his hands in Black’s future. In one of the most significant rumors (believed to be true) Black has signed on with none other than Ingram cohort and fundraiser to millionaires, Kim Kaegi. It is impossible to believe Kim would go to work for Black without first conferring with and receiving permission from the Haslam/Ingram combine. The only question is for which office will she run: Governor or the Senate in 2018? It doesn’t seem to make since that she would sign on Kaegi this far in advance of a 2020 senate run when Lamar’s full term ends. And signing up Kaegi for a governor run flies in the face of the Haslam’s preferred choice for that seat (see below). So that leads to the speculation she may know something is up with Lamar and that the race for his senate seat will begin much, much sooner. In such an event, the following people would have some serious political calculations to make.

Mark Green

The state senator (R-Clarksville) has wanted to run for governor for some time, but always assumed Diane Black would be one of his competitors. If she runs for Senate instead, the odds he gets into the governor’s race increase. Look for him to spend the next few months with more than one sleepless night (with or without Saddam Hussein).

Randy Boyd

Business partner and close friends with the Haslams, the governor moved Boyd into the ECD position so that he could move around the state and get comfortable with those donors who view state government as a place to make a quick buck. Think of Boyd as the Common Core/Jones LaSalle/Gas Tax candidate. Boyd also has a piss-load of personal money from his pet products company and has sent every signal he is running, despite his contrived public reticence. If he gets in, that screaming sound you hear will be:

Beth Harwell

Harwell has long been a minor threat to every major elective office. Her flirtation with running for Congress is well known, as is her desire to run for governor. Black running for senate instead of governor would seem ideal for Harwell, were it not for that whole Randy Boyd thingy. Harwell has sucked up to the Haslams for decades, and their signals they favor Boyd has to cut her to the quick. Still, she has well over $1 million in her campaign and PAC accounts, so there’s that.

But Harwell’s embarrassing mishandling of the Durham debacle as left her political judgement and viability in serious question. After raising a stink about Durham and drawing the AG into the controversy, she now has to come up with 66 votes to expel him or leave every Republican legislator wondering why the hell she put them through such hell. Barring some new revelation about Durham doing it with a chicken, she ain’t got the votes.

Marsha Blackburn

In years past, Marsha would be at the top of every speculative list, but her time may have passed. Besides, she has good seniority in Congress, where she seems to be genuinely popular. Unless she is in some kind of “up or out” mode, look for her to stay where she is.

Bob Corker

No President Jeb! means no Secretary of State Corker – especially after his disastrous Iranian nuclear deal that is quickly being proven to be one of the worst foreign affairs debacles in history.

But since he is up for election in 2018, he wants to make certain he doesn’t draw a credible primary opponent. With a crowd like this, he is likely to get his wish.

The Littleton/Beavers Variable

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In the midst of all this is an innocuous little piece of legislation making its way through the legislature. It seeks to take away a major component of the above chain reaction by having the state fill vacant U.S. Senate seats the same way state law does U.S. House seats: a special election must be held within 107 days of resignation or vacancy.

Coincidence? Hah.

Chris Butler of the Tennessee Watchdog has an excellent story on this.

A Premature Extrapolation for 2016?

It is unlikely, but possible, that Lamar gets out by early May of this year, and that would set off a sprint for his seat to be filled in this year’s general election. Only the immediately well-funded (Black, Boyd and possibly Fincher) would have the resources to compete at the highest level for the August primary. Boyd, as surmised before, would likely hold off to run for governor in 2018. That would leave a Black-Fincher race as a possibility.

RTP will leave to another time the discussion of the congressional races. With the above and other factors, it is possible as many as four House races may be in play in the 2018 election.


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