Tennessee's Colossally Bad Plan to End Senate Primaries

The state legislature is considering a plan that would circumvent the 17th Amendment -- and make the nomination process significantly worse.
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State Senator Frank Nicely introduced a bill that would change how Tennessee nominates U.S. Senate candidates. (Associated Press)

You can hear bad ideas almost every day. But only occasionally do you hear a colossally bad, ill-conceived idea, one that leaves you wondering who dreamed it up.

Tennessee state Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, has introduced S.B. 471, which would, beginning in 2016, eliminate party primaries for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. Members of the state Legislature would instead select the nominees. Republican House and Senate caucuses would pick the GOP nominee, and their Democratic counterparts would select their candidate. State Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, has also introduced the bill in the Tennessee General Assembly.

My first reaction was to be dismissive. In Washington, as in state legislatures around the country, we often see goofy bills and resolutions introduced, but most thankfully die without any action being taken. But what really got my attention was the news that the Tennessee Senate's State and Local Government Committee voted 7-1 last week to advance the bill. And, no, this isn't an April Fool's joke.

My second reaction was, why stop there? Why not just repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and go back to the way things were before 1913 when voters had no say at all, and state legislatures elected U.S. senators? The 17th Amendment calls for the popular election of U.S. senators but is silent on nominations; indeed, the Constitution is silent on the whole issue of political parties.

As a result, states pretty much have a free hand in determining how nominees are selected. Utah has a two-step process whereby a candidate must clear a 60 percent threshold in the state convention to avoid a statewide primary election; if no candidate receives 60 percent of the vote, the top two candidates move on to a primary. In 2010, this process resulted in incumbent Republican Robert Bennett, one of the ablest U.S. senators to serve in a long time, not even making it onto a primary ballot. By most counts, Bennett would have easily won a primary, but in a Tea Party-packed convention process, he came up short -- his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program was his biggest sin.

Virginia has an odd system in which the parties decide whether the state holds a convention or a primary each election cycle. Neither Utah nor Virginia has a process that should be emulated; indeed, with cynicism about government increasing, is this really a good time to cut voters out of the process? Why let state legislators choose who should be the Senate nominee?

What's interesting is that this idea is advancing in Tennessee, not say, Delaware, where GOP voters in 2010, in their infinite wisdom, chose Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell to be their Senate standard-bearer, over an infinitely rational Rep. Mike Castle. Again, chalk that up to the halcyon days for the Tea Party movement in 2010, when heretics were to be burned.

But in Tennessee, we see a state with two top-notch senators, Lamar Alexander in the senior position and Bob Corker as the junior senator -- both Republicans and both highly regarded among their colleagues inside and outside the Senate. Corker, a former state commissioner of finance and administration, as well as a former mayor of Chattanooga, was first elected in 2006, defeating two sitting House members to win the GOP nomination and then beating Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in a hotly contested general election. In my judgment, it was one of the rare contests where had it gone either way, the state still would have gotten a first-rate senator. One of the stated reasons for switching to the system in which the state Legislature determines Senate nominees is that last year the Democratic nominee against Corker was Mark Clayton, a fringe candidate with fairly exotic views who was denounced by the party. My response to that: It really didn't matter too much who was nominated by the Democrats; he or she wasn't going to beat Corker anyway.

State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron was quoted by columnist Tom Humphrey in Knoxnews.com as saying that Nicely's proposal would "turn back the clock a century or two." Humphrey quoted state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney as saying, "You can always count on Senator Nicely to come up with innovative proposals conservatives can be proud of. This is another step in that direction, and I certainly think it is an interesting idea."

That's an interesting choice of words.

Another one of Nicely's interesting ideas was to be one of four Republican state legislators in Tennessee to sign onto a 2009 lawsuit challenging President Obama to release his birth certificate. Another was his opposition to an effort to make cockfighting a felony. Also interesting, Nicely was deemed "hostile to business" by the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, something rather odd for a Republican lawmaker.

Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. This only came to my attention when a prominent Republican in the state whom I have known for years brought it up with me, hoping that national attention might help kill a profoundly bad idea. Let's hope this column will help.

Ashton Barry contributed

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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