When I covered the Tennessee Capitol from 2018 to 2021, the family-values espousing Republican House speaker had to explain why his text message trail included discussions of pole-dancing women and his chief of staff’s sexual encounters in the bathroom of a hot chicken restaurant.
After a Republican lawmaker was accused of sexually assaulting 15- and 16-year-old girls he had taught and coached, he was made chairman of the House education committee.
Protesters filled the halls week after week, year after year, calling for the removal of the bust of the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard, a piece of art featured prominently between the House and Senate chambers. Democrats pushed for its removal, while Republicans resisted.
A Democrat who declined to support the current speaker’s reelection had her office moved into a small, windowless room. In a twist of fate, that same Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, narrowly escaped expulsion on Thursday. (Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson fared differently.)
And then, of course, there was the famous peeing incident, where a legislator’s office chair was urinated on in an act of intraparty retribution over shitposting. The actual identity of the Republican urinator is a closely-held secret among a small group of operatives who have bragged about witnessing it. But it’s generally accepted that former state Rep. Rick Tillis, a Republican and the brother of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, did indeed have his chair peed on in the Cordell Hull legislative office building.
It wasn’t always quite like this.
There was a time before when one-upmanship wasn’t the organizing principle inside the Tennessee statehouse. Not so long ago, there was more balance in power and, with that, more comity in the chamber. But as Republicans have made bigger gains, they’ve also become more politically confrontational.
The modern Tennessee Republican Party was forged by Howard Baker and others in the 1960s and 70s by tapping into a bipartisan coalition of voters — bringing the GOP from near irrelevance within the state to soon producing some of the nation’s top Republican talent.
“This kind of scene Thursday was the last thing they would have wanted to see happen,” said Keel Hunt, an author of books on Tennessee politics who worked as an aide to then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, a Republican.
I’m reminded of an evening I was sitting in the House press corps box in April 2021, when the House honored Alexander — a Republican and champion of civility, now remembered for his moderate flavor of politics — after his recent retirement from the Senate. Moments later, Republican leadership brought far-right conservative commentator and MAGA firebrand Candace Owens onto the floor, describing her as one of the party’s leading thought leaders of the day, fighting against “creeping socialism and leftist political tyranny.” The Tennessee House passed a resolution thanking her for moving to the state.
The state party knows that it’s drifting. Some openly and proudly admit it. It’s also evidenced by Sen. Bob Corker’s decision not to seek reelection in 2018, and Gov. Bill Haslam’s opting out of running for Alexander’s open seat in 2020. Both Corker and Haslam know they were unlikely to have survived a primary in the state, had they stayed true to their own brands of more moderate conservatism. Corker’s Senate seat ended up going to Marsha Blackburn, a Trump loyalist, and Bill Hagerty, now in Alexander’s seat, handily won the GOP primary after securing his own endorsement from Trump.