Trouble in Paradise? (Part 15): Mr. Smith Tried to Go to Nashville
Isn’t the Republican Party supposed to stand for election integrity?
Groucho Marx is reputed to have said that he did not want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. I have the opposite problem. Last month, I ran as a write-in candidate for the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee in District 2—a position that no one else wanted—and garnered over 300 votes by GOP primary voters on election day. Over a month later, on September 7, I discovered that the “club” doesn’t want me as a member. The SEC, sitting as the “State Primary Board,” purported to nullify my election, after the votes were cast on August 4 and certified by the Secretary of State on September 1. Retroactive nullification of elections–a hallmark of banana republics—is common in the Third World but not a typical feature of American politics.
Yet, by a 25 to 13 vote of the 66-member SEC (many of whom did not even deign to attend the virtual meeting on Zoom), my election was unilaterally abrogated–canceled. The SEC is the governing body of the Tennessee Republican Party (TRP), which is headquartered in the state capital, Nashville.
Why are the apparatchiks in charge of the Tennessee Republican Party (TRP) so opposed to my election? The stated grounds for objecting to my write-in win to a seat on the SEC—something that apparently has never previously occurred–is that I am not a “bona fide” Republican, as defined by the TRP bylaws. People who know me may be surprised by that claim. I am a lifelong Republican. I have voted in every election since 1976, and have never voted for a Democrat in a contested partisan election. I have been active in GOP politics my entire adult life, in Texas, California, and Tennessee. I have walked precincts, watched polls, attended state conventions, held county party offices, volunteered at GOP headquarters, donated to candidates, attended fundraisers, manned phone banks, and been active in many grassroots organizations. I personify the committed GOP activist. If I am not “bona fide,” no one is.
What, then, is the basis for overturning my election? As I smacked down each spurious charge, others popped up, in Whac-A-Mole fashion. In only the most casual manner, I learned that other “objections” to my election were being raised—by whom, I was never told. My alleged “sins”? I failed to pay a $100 “registration fee” to the TRP for GOP candidates whose name will appear on the Republican primary ballot. As a write-in candidate, my name was not on the GOP primary ballot (hence the term “write-in”), and in a June 15 telephone conversation the TRP’s Political Director confirmed that no fee was due in the case of a write-in. The TRP then changed positions and—weeks after the election–TRP Chairman Scott Golden claimed that I was delinquent in paying the $100. I promptly paid the $100. Too late, the TRP exclaimed! The election would be overturned, and the wishes of over 300 voters would be disregarded, because of a $100 fee that I was told was not due but paid anyway! Nowhere in the TRP bylaws does it state that a candidate can be disqualified, after being elected, for an infraction akin to an overdue library book.
But the flimsy charges did not end there! The most specious of the objections was that my write-in candidacy was invalid because I failed to file a Certificate of Write-In Candidacy in all the counties encompassed by District 2, which includes the entirety of Blount, Monroe, and Polk counties, and a small portion of Bradley County. The certificate must be filed in person, at each county’s election commission office. I timely filed in the three “whole” counties, knowing that most of my votes would come from my fellow Blount Countians, but consciously chose not to file in distant Bradley, where I didn’t know a soul. The relevant Tennessee statute (TCA 2-8-113(c)), the Tennessee Secretary of State’s filing instructions, and the wording of the write-in certificate itself, all make it explicitly clear that the only consequence of failing to file in a particular county is that write-in votes for a candidate will not be counted in that county. Nevertheless, nonsensically, the TRP argued that my failure to file in Bradley disqualified my election altogether.
As I debunked each frivolous “objection,” SEC members asserted new ones—in the nature of grasping at straws—with ever-declining merit. As the Zoom proceedings degenerated into a Soviet-style show trial, I was accused of exploiting a “loophole” by filing as a write-in (even though the method is authorized by Tennessee law and not addressed in the TRP bylaws); criticizing certain local elected officials on my blog (Misrule of Law) and social media posts; and other petty objections that one media observer called an “embarrassing, childish display.” All of these objections were tossed around in the 90-minute-long Zoom meeting on September 7, in a manner described as “snarky,” “rude,” and “mean-spirited,” culminating with the vote to overturn my election, by a 25 to 13 vote.
I issued a statement the next day, questioning both the wisdom and legality of the SEC’s decision. I pointed out that “The unprecedented ruling of the SEC creates poor optics for the Republican brand. How can the party that stands for ‘election integrity’ be willing to negate the results of a lawful election, after the fact?” I have asked the Tennessee Secretary of State, Tre Hargett, to countermand the SEC’s retroactive nullification of a certified election on the ground that the TRP lacks the authority to rescind elections after the votes have been cast, counted, and certified. SEC members, once seated, can be removed for “cause” based on their conduct in office, but I was never seated. Mechanisms exist for losing candidates to contest an election in court, but I had no opponent, and the TRP has not gone to court.
As I stated in my message to Mr. Hargett, “Something is rotten here. The TRP cannot simply negate election results after the fact. This is the type of arbitrary conduct one would expect in a banana republic, not the state of Tennessee…. In a functioning democracy, elections are sacred and the results cannot be ignored, rewritten, or nullified at the whim or caprice of party officials.” The Secretary of State has not yet responded to my complaint.
What is the explanation for the TRP’s vociferous opposition to my election? One clue is the lobbying campaign conducted against me prior to the Zoom call by Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell, a Republican office holder whom I have criticized, and whose GOP opponent I endorsed in a recent primary. Political payback, in other words. More broadly, I am an unabashed conservative whose stated purpose for serving on the SEC is to make the TRP “stronger, better-organized, and more attentive to grassroots conservatives.” This may not seem controversial—and should not be—but as in Washington, D.C., the special interests prefer to have the playing field to themselves. To them, “grassroots” is a dirty word. The establishment never supported the MAGA agenda advanced by President Trump. At the state and local level, well-connected insiders would prefer to exclude ordinary Tennesseans from the political process, leaving it to the Chamber of Commerce crowd to recruit candidates, formulate policy, and support taxpayer subsidies for corporate interests—what populists call “crony capitalism.”
I suspect that I was viewed as a threat to the status quo, like Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1939 Frank Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In that classic movie, considered one of the greatest films of all time, an idealistic but naive outsider is sent to the nation’s capital to fill a Senate vacancy, where he confronts and ultimately prevails over a corrupt political machine. This theme, one of Capra’s favorites, was reprised in his 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, also starring Stewart in a similar role.
I wanted to go to Nashville, to make a difference. I don’t wish to suggest that the status quo at the TRP is corrupt, but I am definitely the underdog. Some disruption is necessary to empower the grassroots. The resistance to my election signifies resistance to needed change. The struggle is not over. I hope my story has a Capraesque ending.
POSTSCRIPT: The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office declined to intercede in the TRP’s nullification of my election, deeming it to be an “intra-party dispute” beyond the authority of Tennessee election officials. The Tennessee Conservative News reported the story here. Next stop is an Attorney General opinion (if I can find a state legislator willing to request one) or possibly litigation.