Conservatives have their knives out for Beth Harwell, and she hasn't even been elected speaker 

Tempest in a Teacup

Tempest in a Teacup

As the new state House speaker with nearly a super majority of Republicans, Rep. Beth Harwell won't have to worry much about Democrats. It's her own party that's most likely to give her heartburn.

aHarwell, who has represented Green Hills for the past 22 years, must balance confrontation and cooperation as she straddles the frequently warring GOP factions of fiery hardliners and more orthodox conservatives.

Her fight for the speaker's gavel against the tea party-backed Glen Casada last month was a microcosm of the strife besetting the Republican Party nationally. Her nomination is seen as another victory for the GOP's monied establishment, which funds political campaigns, and a blow to the grassroots activists who do much of the grunt work.

She follows Bill Haslam this year in demonstrating the continued strength of the state party's pro-business moderates. Devotees of Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, they once were known as silk-stocking, country-club Republicans, and Harwell and Haslam both fit that mold.

Haslam, who beat the social conservatives Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey in this summer's GOP gubernatorial primary, is said to have helped Harwell, his campaign co-chair, in the speaker's contest. While he stayed on the sidelines personally, the governor-elect's associates quietly let it be known that they favored Harwell, according to insiders. Haslam's backing was said to be key to her nomination.

Even before she's formally elected speaker, which won't happen until January when the 107th General Assembly convenes, Harwell's taking flak from the right wing of her party.

"Machine politics won out," tea party leader Mark Skoda declares. "This is who Haslam wanted and this is who he got. She's a moderate. She's not a conservative. This is a disappointment to be sure. It's politics as usual. I have no illusions about how this went down."

Conservative talk radio host Steve Gill says social conservatives will rise up in the 2012 elections to smite House Republicans for voting for Harwell. He predicts that because of Harwell's nomination, Republicans might lose half of the 14 House seats they gained in November's elections.

"When you've got a huge conservative political year, when you have candidates who run as conservatives, as tea party candidates, and then they vote for the more moderate RINO [Republican in name only] instead of the more conservative, I think that is a bit of a shock," Gill says.

After her nomination, Harwell said of her tea party critics, "We welcome their input ... but certainly our party is united and ready to move forward." Gill claims she was "thumbing her nose" at the tea party by saying that.

"I think you're going to see over the next 18 months, a lot of these Republican freshmen and others get challenged in primaries because they've proved by this election that they're not as conservative as they said on the campaign trail," Gill says. "They're going to have votes that are going to further expose that."

Regarding next year's Republican agenda, Harwell and Haslam are on the same page. They both pledge to focus on budget problems and measures to create jobs and spur the economy. In doing so, they hope to avoid bogging down in volatile social issues and turning off independent voters in the process.

The first two years of Republican rule in Nashville were marked by what many saw as an obsession with expanding gun rights, and Harwell and Haslam hope to shift that focus to the economy.

Asked by reporters to name her priorities as speaker, Harwell doesn't mention abortion, guns, gays or any of the social conservative issues that have preoccupied Republicans in the past.

"Certainly, this caucus is committed to low taxes, small government and carrying the governor's agenda through," she says. "We have an economy that needs repair. We want to focus on the job creation and building an environment that's conducive to job creation in the state of Tennessee."

"We addressed a good number of gun bills last session," she adds, "and I feel that clearly we received a mandate from the public that we need to be focused on jobs and education and the economy this session." 

But even some of her supporters in the House Republican Caucus won't stand by while she ignores their top social goals.

Rep. Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, was one of Harwell's most important behind-the-scenes advocates against Casada (even if he praised her somewhat regressively earlier this week as "a good-lookin' woman" whose main political asset was not rousing jealousy in other women). Niceley predicts Harwell will govern just as conservatively as Casada. Her differences are matters of style, not substance, Niceley says.

"I think she's a better salesman for what we're trying to sell," he says. "You've got to sell it in a way that people will buy it. ... The more the tea party knows about Beth, the better they're going to like her."


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