Tennessee’s nutty new Senate primary plan

The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from modern buildings in Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from modern buildings in Nashville.
Associated Press

In every state, Senate elections follow a predictable pattern: candidates launch campaigns, the parties hold primaries, voters choose their candidates, and the winners face off in a general election.

As Charlie Cook explained this week, Tennessee is weighing a proposal to change the system a bit. It’d be similar, except voters in the Volunteer State wouldn’t get to vote in Senate primaries anymore.

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 why, pray tell, do Tennessee Republicans want to stop voters from participating in their own Senate primaries? It goes back to the far-right’s opposition to the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As Ed Kilgore explained, “Many of you are probably aware that one of the wingnut ideas that has accompanied the rise of the Tea Party Movement was repealing the 17th amendment and letting state legislators – not those idiot looters and takers – choose U.S. Senators again…. Trouble is, of course, that enacting or repealing constitutional amendments is a pretty heavy lift.”

Quite right. And since the Constitution probably won’t be changed anytime soon, and the 17th Amendment likely won’t be repealed, conservatives in Tennessee see this as the next best thing.

Long-time readers may recall that the right’s preoccupation with the 17th Amendment has been ongoing for several years now. Conservatives would like to scrap at least one part of the 14th Amendment, “restore” the “original” 13th Amendment, and repeal the 16th Amendment, but it’s the 17th – the one that lets Americans choose their own U.S. senators – that really gets under conservatives’ skin.

Why? In a nutshell, the far-right believes all hell broke loose after Americans starting electing U.S. senators – as opposed to the original system in which state legislatures chose U.S. senators and voters didn’t have much say in the matter. For conservatives, this meant senators stopped being beholden to state interests, which affected federalist principles in ways the right doesn’t like.

And so, every year, new efforts pop up to repeal the 17th Amendment, and every year, people like me shake their heads in disappointment.

But the story out of Tennessee is a little different. These state GOP lawmakers realize they can’t scrap the 17th Amendment, but they figure, if the state legislature picks the candidates, that will help ensure that U.S. senators are at least partially in state lawmakers’ debt. Sure, it takes power out of voters’ hands, but for the right, that’s a small price to pay – and besides, the election of senators will remain the electorate’s decision, at least until repealing the 17th becomes more realistic.

Does this plan have any chance of actually passing? The Republican leader of the Tennessee Senate said last week, “If you’d asked me that in January, I’d have said no,” Ramsey told reporters this week. “If you ask me now, I think it’s at least 50/50.”

17th Amendment, Constitution, Tennessee and Constitutional Amendments

Tennessee's nutty new Senate primary plan