For some time now, House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart has been the target of rhetorical shelling from John Harris and his Tennessee Firearms Association, stemming from the contentious debate over proposed, and ultimately stalled, guns-in-lots legislation. Harris recently told TNReport — who succeeded in keeping him on the phone much longer than we've been able to — that his public frustration with the GOP's decision to stop the gun-rights legislation springs from his larger beef — "the personal agenda of incumbents and the caucus within the General Assembly, primarily the House of Representatives, to raise funds to retain power and their offices rather than to demonstrate by their actions that they can be trusted with a return to office.”
Harris and the TFA have declared support for Maggart's challenger, Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers. In response to the rather aggressive tone of that support, Rogers' campaign manager Jeff Hartline told Pith "that's not her style," but that she still wants the group's support. He did express similar displeasure with Maggart, saying she's "in total love" with with her power and that she has "forgotten who she represents."
Naturally, the GOP leadership disagrees with Harris about what they have or have not demonstrated by their actions. They aren't being shy about embracing the "raising funds to retain power and their offices" bit, though. Three of the state's top elected Republicans have now come to Maggart's defense, and you can almost imagine them walking down the halls of Legislative Plaza, snapping their fingers and singing in unison, "when you're an [incumbent], if the spit hits the fan, you got brothers around ..."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick defended his No. 2 by going on the offensive. He told reporters earlier this month that Harris possessed a "far extreme personal agenda" that doesn't "reflect a broad base movement at all." In fact, he said he believes Harris' rhetoric has — all together now — "backfired," and that he's lost support as a result.
Gov. Bill Haslam had been indicating that he would support Maggart all along. His intentions were made clear by the news last week that he would be the featured guest at her re-election campaign kickoff and fundraiser in Gallatin tomorrow. Since then, Haslam has said he thought Maggart took "a lot of unmerited heat" and that anyone questioning her conservative credentials "is missing something."
Finally, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters in his office last week that Maggart's was one of the few primary campaigns in which he'd be taking a side. He echoed the governor, saying he felt she'd been "maligned unfairly."
While the TFA is joining with some conservative groups in the effort to defeat Maggart, Sumner County's largest Tea Party group announced last month that it would not be taking a position in the race. Although Rogers was elected president of the group — Sumner United for Responsible Government — earlier this year, SURG communications director Eric Stamper told Pith she resigned once she decided to run for Maggart's seat. Since they have members who strongly support each candidate, Stamper said, it would be "very divisive" if the group attempted to take a side.
So while the state's various Tea Party groups are struggling to coalesce, the incumbentry is forming a united front against them. It's easy to see how denouncing a giant's unseemly size and power could fire up your supporters, but it does little to change his size and power. While there are occasional David and Goliath stories in politics — and the Tea Party has been on the victorious side of them — there are many more in which the rock bounces off Goliath's shin futilely. And he laughs, because he's huge.
When right wing challengers criticize incumbents for being part of a powerfully entrenched establishment, they may well be hoping it's not true.