In the only contested Republican leadership race in the Tennessee House of Representatives that was voted on voted on yesterday by the Republican Caucus, Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) defeated incumbent Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma) for the Republican nomination for the House’s number two leadership position. Because of the massive size of the House Republican Caucus, the party nominee is guaranteed election when the 108th Tennessee General Assembly convenes on Tuesday, January 8th. Matheny has been a conservative stalwart during his years in the General Assembly, but his defeat in caucus yesterday by no means comes as a complete surprise.
This writer predicted that despite my personal support of Judd Matheny, Johnson stood a good chance of unseating him. Like Matheny, Curtis Johnson has a respectable conservative record and his right-of-center credentials can’t be questioned. Unlike the vocal member from Tullahoma, Johnson didn’t publicly complain of being marginalized by leadership and then threaten to mount a challenge to Speaker Harwell that he had no chance to win and little ability even to get off the ground. By doing this, Matheny basically announced “I am going to be a thorn in Beth Harwell’s side.” This may be an unfair generalization, but that is the impression Matheny left with many observers including this writer, so he had to leave that impression with many of his fellow Republicans as well-and many of those are loyal to the Speaker who helped them win election or re-election.
Some folks on Facebook or other internet outlets have theorized that Governor Bill Haslam (R-Knoxville) somehow engineered Matheny’s defeat. This writer does not buy that theory-both the House and the Senate have repeatedly demonstrated their independence from the Governor and a willingness to use the sheer size of the GOP legislative majority to force Haslam’s hand on a number of occasions. That reality is unlikely to change, which is why we saw the Governor wait until the previous General Assembly adjourned to issue a veto-he knows his vetoes can and often will be over-ridden. Since Republicans on the Hill have already demonstrated that they will do as they bloody well please-thank you very much-the Governor has little influence in a closed-door leadership vote where members can not only vote freely but speak freely in a way they cannot do otherwise. Members have elected the leadership team that they want, and if it happens to be one the Governor likes, well that’s just nice.