Bill Haslam Takes National Role as He Steps Off Tennessee Stage

The governor was elected RGA chairman for 2018, when some races will affect the next round of redistricting.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Dec. 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Bill Haslam is used to being the center of attention as the two-term governor of Tennessee, the former mayor of the state’s third-largest city, and the heir to one of America’s largest family fortunes.

But Haslam’s stature is poised to grow next year even as his time in office comes to a close. He will wield in-state and national influence that could affect statehouses, congressional maps, and even Senate control.

The folksy Knoxville native is starting a one-year term as Republican Governors Association chairman for the second time over eight years in the governor’s mansion. He’s in charge of raising tens of millions of dollars for the group as it seeks to withstand body blows to its state-government majorities in the midterms. Those results will eventually be felt in Washington, as some governors elected next year will weigh in on the next round of redistricting.

“His colleagues saw him as somebody that can lead,” said Mark Cate, Haslam’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, who will serve as an adviser to the RGA next year. Cate said Haslam’s “No. 1 job” will be to help the organization “raise a ton of money” for campaigns in 36 states, two-thirds of which Republicans are defending.

“He is also well-liked by the donor community,” Cate added. “He’s a corporate exec. That’s his background.”

Tennessee is the only state with open races for both Senate and governor next year. Haslam said in an interview at the RGA conference in Austin, Texas last month that he will stay neutral in the “very competitive” August Republican primaries in both races, though he thought “briefly” about running himself for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker.

“I didn’t want to give up my last year being governor,” Haslam said. “And no matter what you say, when you’re running for one office you don’t do your existing job as well.”

Haslam isn’t endorsing, but Kim Kaegi, a top Haslam fundraiser, signed on to former Rep. Stephen Fincher’s Senate campaign. And Haslam highlighted Fincher’s qualifications as a public servant and farmer when asked if he thought Fincher’s primary opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, would be a good senator. A Blackburn spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Fincher campaign manager Thomas Midanek said the two are friends, “but this election is going to be about the candidates running for Senate, what they stand for, and how they will fight for Tennessee.”

While Haslam hasn’t waded into the GOP governor primary, those in his orbit have offered support to various candidates. About a quarter of the donors in Randy Boyd’s most recent fundraising disclosure have previously given to Haslam, according to an analysis of itemized contribution data compiled by both the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Haslam praised Boyd’s “good, inside view of the way that state government works,” while a spokeswoman for Boyd, who was Haslam’s former state Economic and Community Development commissioner and is also from Knoxville, said the two Republicans “certainly have mutual supporters.”

But Haslam also spoke laudably of Boyd’s GOP opponents, Rep. Diane Black, state House Speaker Beth Harwell, home-services executive Bill Lee, and former state Sen. Mae Beavers.

Haslam fundraiser John Roberts, a Manchester auto dealer, is backing Black, as is former Tennessee Republican Party Chair Tom Beasley. About a tenth of Lee’s donors, including former Cabinet official Steve Cates, previously gave to Haslam. And Lee, whom Haslam appointed to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, has hired Haslam’s ad maker, Fred Davis, and pollster, Whit Ayres.

“There’s lots of similarities” between the two Bills, Davis said. “They’re both really decent, human, authentic people. They don’t have a bogus bone in their body.”

Haslam’s moderation has alienated some conservatives. He called on Donald Trump to drop out of the presidential race last year following the release of the Access Hollywood tape. And in Nashville, he backed a gas-tax hike and failed legislation that would have granted undocumented immigrants in-state tuition to public universities.

“That puts him way out of step with, certainly, Tennessee Republican likely primary voters,” said Steve Gill, a conservative radio host based in Nashville. “So his impact on the Republican primary next year will be limited, if not detrimental, to anybody he comes out in favor of.”

The governor seat has switched parties with every new administration since 1970, and state Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said a win would mean the first back-to-back Republican governors since Reconstruction.

Haslam’s standing heading into his final year should aid that effort, as a recent Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey found 57 percent approving of his job performance, including majorities of Republicans and independents and a narrow plurality of Democrats.

“That’s the background in which we’re working,” said former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat running for governor. “And I think you have to acknowledge that the person who currently occupies the governor’s seat is well-regarded by the people of Tennessee.”

Both Dean and his primary opponent, state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, in separate interviews praised Haslam’s push for taxpayer-funded higher education and his unsuccessful effort to expand Medicaid.

Of course, Democrats still plan to target the outgoing governor. Mary Mancini, chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, recently pointed to the state’s stagnant wages and hospital closures during Haslam’s tenure, saying he was “pushed around by the extremists” in the legislature. The Democratic Governors Association highlights the federal charges against truck-stop chain Pilot Flying J, which was founded by Haslam’s father and is now run by his brother.

“They’ve chosen a leader whose company is facing a massive federal fraud trial,” DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said shortly after Haslam secured his RGA chairmanship. “That’s not a recipe for success when Republicans are on defense across the country.”

Kimberly Railey contributed to this article.
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