For the second consecutive interim between an outgoing and an incoming General Assembly, the House Republican Caucus will hold its major contested election for a leadership position in the month of November, rather than in mid-December before Christmas, as had been done in previous years. Tennessee readers might recall that in 2007, the House Republican Caucus deliberately held the caucus vote for nominations for Speaker of the House (between Beth Harwell and Glen Casada) in November, even though it-along with the other leadership contests-had originally been scheduled to take place in December. The reason for this change from what had been a somewhat-established post-election was because of a very public division in the caucus over who should be Speaker and take the Republicans’ top leadership role at the time. If it had not been resolved quickly, the race for the gavel had the potential to split the Republican Party wide open in full view of an unsuspecting public that would never have understood what the fuss was all about.
This time there is only one contested leadership contest, that of Speaker pro Tempore, between the current Speaker pro Tem Judd Matheny of Tullahoma and Rep. Curtis Johnson of Clarksville, who has announced that he will challenge Matheny for the number two leadership position in the House in a vote to be held on Monday following Thanksgiving. Normally, one would be inclined to think that the sitting Speaker pro Tem would be easily retained in a year when Republicans gained seats and GOP party leadership needs to be seen keeping conservatives like Matheny in positions of leadership. Matheny ran afoul of many in the party earlier this year when he publicly accused other members of the Republican leadership team in the House of trying to sideline him and toyed with running against Harwell in a contested caucus election for Speaker that he had to know he had utterly no chance at winning.
If this writer had a vote in the Speaker pro Tem contest, he would likely vote for Judd Matheny, who is a solid conservative with a record to prove it. If I were Matheny, however, I would not underestimate the threat to his position posed by a thoroughly decent man in Curtis Johnson. Unlike Matheny, Johnson has never complained about being sidelined, although he often has been in the past because he builds influence in a way that does not draw attention to himself. Conservatives can’t question Johnson’s voting record-he has a fine one-so there wouldn’t be the typical allegations of a “moderate purge” were Johnson to win. Some may attempt to say that, but it just wouldn’t hold water-Johnson’s record does all the talking in terms of where he stands on conservative issues. The watchword for Judd Matheny is “telephone,” if he wants to keep his position, he needs to make a lot of phone calls this week.
The House Republican Caucus will meet Monday morning in the AT&T building in downtown Nashville. Both of the two traditional meeting sites-the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the House Caucus Room-are inside the Tennessee Capitol, which is undergoing renovations and will not be open again until next month.