Gov. Bill Haslam figured the justices on the Supreme Court would prevail against Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. He just didn’t think they would win by so much.
Ramsey didn’t either. As one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, he bet $425,000 of his campaign war chest, and even more political capital, that he and supporters could rile up enough voters to see the judges as liberal Democrats who appointed an Obamacare-loving attorney general, and boot them all out of office.
But what he got in return was a 14-point loss, a clear 57 percent of voters saying they don’t buy his message and the state’s top Republicans now saying they think the current attorney general is not so bad.
The last time the powerful Republican ran a statewide campaign, Ramsey came up 25 points short for the GOP nod for governor, handing Haslam a win after months of calling him too moderate to run Tennessee.
While Haslam and Ramsey purport to be allies, Haslam and Harwell both steered clear of Ramsey’s judicial targeting, leaving him to spearhead the unseating the three justices on his own.
“I think that the public really just looked at those individuals and didn’t see the liberal label applying to them, so they made their conscious choice,” House Speaker Beth Harwell told the Nashville Post. “I think Lt. Gov. Ramsey felt strongly about this issue and gave a lot of his heart and soul, which is typical of Ron, to what he believes in.”
While Harwell contends she was too busy during re-election season to dabble with judicial politics, Haslam avoided the retention election fight because he’d have to appoint their successors, he said. But that’s not all. Haslam also has deep ties with two of the three justices: the Haslam family counts then-Chief Justice Wade as a former business partner and Justice Sharon Lee as a former school mate.
HASLAM, HARWELL: AG'S DONE A GOOD JOB
Now that the voters have retained the three justices, the full five-member Supreme Court has elected Lee as its chief justice and is now searching for who it wants to name attorney general for the next eight years.
The decision, left exclusively to the court, will be the first test of the body following the election where the three Democratic appointees were hammered for the court naming Democrat Bob Cooper to the position eight years prior.
Cooper has drawn the ire of legislators in the Republican General Assembly over the years — and the hook in Ramsey's campaign against the judges. He is most reviled for refusing to join a national movement to sue the federal government over Obamacare, saying it wasn’t worth his office’s time or energy.
Haslam said he will stay out of the selection of the next AG, but stressed the state needs to have a competent lawyer who can lead the 175 lawyers the office has on staff. Cooper, he said, has done a good job with that.
“General Cooper has done a good job of representing the state in a number of different issues, everything from the Department of Children Services issues to Department of Transportation issues, all the wide variety of things we do. I think General Cooper has done a nice job of that. That being said again, I’m not going to get involved on who the next one should be.”
Harwell said her experience has “always been positive,” with Cooper, although she said others may disagree. But more than anything, she said the next attorney general should be a trustworthy one.
“I want an AG that reflects the will of the public and things they’re concerned with, but not one that kowtows to the legislature. There’s got to be an independent force there because we rely on them the for information. They can’t just be a yes-man over there. It has to be somebody that will say, ‘Yes, that bill would be unconstitutional,’ not, ‘What do you want to hear?’”
NEXT BIG ELECTION QUESTION: WHETHER TO CHANGE CONSTITUTION
Haslam warned early on in the anti-Supreme Court retention effort that the campaign to unseat the judges could “muddy the waters” when he tries to convince voters to change the state constitution’s directors for choosing high court judges. In a campaign advocates are calling “Yes on 2” for the second of four amendments voters will weigh on in November, Haslam will ask voters to give up the potential for open judicial elections in favor of letting the governor and legislature install judges first before giving voters their say.
Even though this summer’s retention election was fiercely partisan against the judges and attracted over $1 million in TV ads and outside influence across the board and throughout the legal community, Haslam says he’s not so worried now that the judges have won, and said the vote is “probably a good indicator” of his amendment’s chances.
“I would argue that if you had totally open elections, it would be what we saw on steroids,” Haslam said. “I think it pointed to maybe a little bit of the difficulty that you’d have if you had open elections.”
As of May, 53 percent of voters polled oppose relinquishing their voting rights in favor of letting the governor pick judges, according to a Vanderbilt University poll from the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Twenty-two percent say the governor should pick the judges.
“My thought was if [voters] didn’t vote to retain, that was going to hurt the chances of that amendment passing,” said John Geer, a political science professor who conducted the study and detects an anti-government tone in voters. “I still think it may fail, but it really depends on how much money is out there for it and how well it can be explained.”
“The public likes to choose. Ask the public who’s better able to make a choice, the public or the governor, or the governor and the state legislator. It’s people all the time. I think the bottom line is that it’s a tough one to pass,” he said.
WHAT THE LOSS MEANS FOR RAMSEY
Although Ramsey’s mission to unseat at least one member of the court failed, he cast it as a win.
“Our Supreme Court justices traveled the state of Tennessee this summer meeting Tennesseans and learning things about our state that you can’t find in any law book. Because of that, more Tennesseans than ever know the names of our Supreme Court justices and are aware they have a role in deciding who sits on the high court,” read a statement sent election night after the judges’ retention appeared clear. “No matter how you look at it. That is the true victory, not just for this effort, but for the state of Tennessee.”
But after making a big splash that turned into a belly flop when his effort fell flat, it leaves him in much the same position he was in four years ago after losing the governor’s race: licking his wounds but still sitting as the head of the state’s Republican-filled upper chamber.
“He’s not going to be out of power by any means. I just think it hurts him a little bit. It doesn’t give him the informal power that he’d like to have because the public pretty resoundingly didn’t like his idea,” said Geer. “And he invested himself in it. He tried to distance himself a little bit in the end, that didn’t do him any good. In the next state legislature, if he manages to position himself where he can get real leverage over Haslam and Harwell, he could easily rebound pretty easily.”