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Democrats, some Republicans join to fight anti-crossover bill for primaries

Tom Humphrey, The Knoxville News-Sentinel • Mar 2, 2014 at 6:00 PM

NASHVILLE (MCT) – Tennessee's Republican chairman worries legislation to curb crossover voting in party primaries will hurt the GOP's fledgling "red to the roots" campaign, while Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander are concerned about upsetting a system that helped them get elected.

State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron has criticized the Republican campaign to turn more local elections into partisan contests that will put the party label on more judges, county commissioners and city councilmen. He vows to counter "red to the roots" with "blue to the bone."

But Herron agrees with state Republican Chairman Chris Devaney, Alexander and Haslam that the bill on crossover voting pushed by Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, is a bad idea. Carr concedes that the "curious combination" of opposition could derail their proposal, HB1833, after his initial success in winning approval by a House panel.

Devaney says a record 58 of the state's 95 counties this year will hold partisan elections for local office. For the election of judges at the local level, the state is divided into 33 judicial districts, and 22 this year are "participating in the TNGOP's Red to the Roots program," a record for partisan contests in local judicial elections, he said.

Republicans believe bipartisan elections at the local level have allowed Democrats to keep what Devaney calls "a toehold" of power while Republicans have enjoyed great electoral success elsewhere with a supermajority Republican Legislature, a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. Senators and seven of the state's nine U.S. House seats.

The GOP, which has also enjoyed huge success in fundraising compared to Democrats, plans this fall to offer help to some local-level candidates – including financial support – just as it has in the past for the party's legislative candidates.

"Tennesseans want the success we've seen at the state level brought to the local level," declared Devaney in a recent party press release. "They're tired of Democrats and liberals who hide behind the independent label mismanaging taxpayer funds or failing to provide the service Tennesseans expect and deserve."

Herron fired back.

"Not content with imposing their Tea Party agenda through the state legislature, Republicans are now intent on pushing their brand of rigidity at the expense of common sense onto local government as well," he said. "Such outrageous overreach will only backfire as Tennessee voters realize Tennessee Republicans' destructive intent."

Of particular concern, the Democratic chairman said, is that "Republicans are seeking to politicize the judiciary" with the campaign when "Tennesseans want more justice, not more politics from justices."

Herron says Democrats will have a coordinated "blue to the bone" effort to provide help to local Democratic candidates, thus setting up a round of partisan warfare in some counties and cities this fall, though there is no change in Knoxville, where elections remain non-partisan, or Knox County, where Republican candidates already carry the party label.

Devaney says the Carr-Campfield bill could hamper the GOP's efforts. The measure, as amended, calls for each voter, when signing in to vote in a primary election, to "attest" that the primary he or she is voting in best represents personal "values and beliefs."

Carr says a Haslam legislative liaison visited him last week to say Haslam also objects to the bill and that it has become "a candidate for no signature" by the governor. The phrase means "the administration won't use resources supporting or opposing the bill, but the governor's signature could be withheld or the legislation vetoed depending on the final language," Haslam spokesman David Smith said.

"Republicans have super majorities in both houses of the General Assembly under the current primary process, and the governor believes the current system is working well," Smith said.

Carr said he also understood that Alexander, whom Carr is challenging in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, was opposing the bill. Asked about this, Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for the incumbent senator, sent a reply via email:

"Sen. Alexander believes a loyalty oath for primary voters will turn away independent voters who have been attracted to Republican primaries and who have helped make Tennessee's Republican Party larger, more successful and more conservative."

Devaney offered similar reasoning. Party polling, he said, indicates between 33 and 38 percent of Tennessee voters describe themselves as independents, though most also consider themselves conservative. There are also voters "transitioning" from Democrat to Republican, he said, and the Carr-Campfield bill, if enacted, would be a "roadblock" in that process.

"If they have to sign off on some sort of loyalty oath before they go to the polls (in a primary), they aren't going to turn out," he said.

Having not voted in a primary, "it's going to be twice as hard to get them to vote for a (Republican) guy or woman in the general election," Devaney said.

Campfield said it strikes him as contradictory to push for partisan elections while declaring that participants in a primary should not be required to assert their belief in party principles. Without some such assertion, he said, "then it's not really a partisan primary."

"I don't see how getting people to evaluate their values and beliefs in line with the party is going to hurt Republicans," Campfield said. "I think more people will come to the party when they evaluate their beliefs."

Herron said the Carr-Campfield bill dovetails with other Republican efforts to "make it harder for Tennesseans to vote," such as requiring photo identification to cast a ballot. It amounts to having people "sign an additional certification" and could leave voters feeling intimidated, fearing criminal prosecution.

"Anything that makes it harder for Tennesseans to exercise their constitutional right to vote is ... wrong-headed, unpatriotic and antithetical to Tennessean and American values," Herron said. "There are lots of local government candidates who are blue to the bone. There are lots who choose to not have a partisan identification as they run. Democrats support Tennesseans making their own decisions about that."

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