Trouble in Paradise? (Part 18): Tennessee’s Open Primaries Benefit Only RINOs

Adulterating the electoral preferences of conservative Republican voters produces the establishment’s favorite color—purple. And the “bona fide” standard is putty in the hands of entrenched RINO leaders.

Thanks to the Tennessee Conservative News (here)!

Prior to moving to Tennessee three and a half years ago, I had never lived in a state with open primaries. In Tennessee, unlike Texas and California, voters do not register by party; they simply register to vote.  At election time, any registered voter in Tennessee can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary simply by requesting the appropriate ballot at the polling place. Accordingly, when it comes to determining a Tennessee voter’s party affiliation, one cannot just check voter registration records. The telltale notation “Democrat” or “Republican” does not appear on the voter registration card. This is completely contrary to the way elections are run in Texas and California, where voters register by party.

Tennessee is a lopsidedly majority-Republican state, and Democrats can—and do–“crossover” to vote in Republican primaries, especially when the Democrats fail to field a slate of candidates. It is less common for Republicans to “play” in Democratic primaries, since in most cases the Democratic nominee is unlikely to win in the general election. What would be the point?

I was baffled why the Tennessee Republican Party, or the leadership of the GOP’s supermajority delegation in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, would condone Democrats having a voice in the selection of Republican nominees for elective office. It made no sense to me. Republicans stand for a platform of principles diametrically at odds with the values animating their main political rival, the Democrats. The general election pits the Republican nominee against the Democratic nominee, and a spirited campaign is waged between the two, on the premise that the views of the two candidates dramatically differ—and matter. Democrats hold beliefs that are antithetical to Republicans, and, when elected, govern accordingly. These differences explain the existence of two major political parties.

So why should Democrats be allowed to influence the outcome of the Republican primary? There is no sensible explanation.

I initially chalked up the Volunteer State’s open primaries as a historical anomaly due to peculiarities of Tennessee’s political evolution. (And there is a bit of truth to that theory—a subject for a future essay.) But after observing the goings-on of the TRP and the willingness of “Republican” elected officials to betray the GOP platform and the conservative wishes of the grassroots, I have developed a more cynical perspective. I believe that the state’s “Republican” leadership favors open primaries—and works to defeat any attempt to close them—because it wants Democrats crossing over in primary contests between “establishment” GOP candidates (i.e., “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs) and staunch conservatives.

Democrats can give the margin of victory to the more “moderate” Republican candidate, as was the case in the August 2022 GOP primary between longtime incumbent Senate majority leader Jack Johnson and a newcomer, an unabashedly-conservative challenger named Gary Humble (founder of Tennessee Stands). Humble’s campaign against Johnson was framed as grassroots/populist conservative versus the establishment. Johnson won with a margin of only 787 votes (eking out a narrow 51.6% to 48.4% victory). Johnson’s Williamson County district was considered so “safe” that he did not even face a Democratic opponent in the general election. As is often the case in bright red Tennessee, the election would be decided in the GOP primary.

Despite being substantially outspent by Johnson, Humble actually won a majority of Election Day votes, but lost due to “early voting” at polling places in heavily Democratic areas. Voting records show that “there were roughly 2,500 voters in that Republican primary that had voted in the Democratic Presidential Primary in 2020.” Without 2,500 Democratic crossover votes, presumably favoring the more moderate Republican candidate, it is likely that Humble would have handily won the nomination, and gone on to win—unopposed—in the general election. Due to the open primary, in other words, Democratic voters are responsible for Johnson’s victory! In a heavily Republican state such as Tennessee, RINOs depend on Democratic support to win primaries—and in many cases to go on to prevail in the general election.

Open primaries are RINOs’ insurance policy against primary challenges by conservative opponents. RINOs often do the bidding of lobbyists for trade associations and business groups, thereby ensuring an ample campaign fund for re-election. (No need to fundraise from voters in your district if you can collect the needed largesse from well-heeled Nashville PACs.) RINOs want Democrats to prop them up when actual Republican voters favor a conservative primary opponent. There is simply no principled basis for Republican elected officials to support open primaries. None.

Tennessee doesn’t need term limits so much as it needs closed primaries, to level the playing field for conservative candidates who are not bankrolled by special interests. Open primaries are a RINO protection racket. To the supporters of open primaries, the fact that Democrats can ensure that RINOs will be the GOP nominee is a feature, not a bug, of the system.

But, I have come to realize, the situation is even worse than that. Enabling the election of RINOs is only the beginning of the problem with open primaries. Because—as mentioned earlier—Tennessee voters do not register by political party, how can the Tennessee Republican Party determine who is qualified to run as a “Republican” candidate? And how do the state’s 95 counties determine who is eligible to participate in the governance of local Republican parties? The answer lies in the ambiguous, poorly-drafted, and malleable standard for “bona fide” Republican status contained in the TRP bylaws.

Only “bona fide” Republicans (as determined in the sole discretion of the TRP’s RINO leadership) can seek office as Republicans, vote in their local Republican parties’ biennial reorganization meetings, or hold office in their local parties. As explained below, the game is often rigged in favor of the RINOs.

According to the TRP bylaws, a “bona fide” Republican is someone who “has voted in at least three (3) of the four (4) most recent statewide Republican primary elections” (Art. IX, Section 1) [1] and who is “active” in the GOP.  Local primaries don’t count. “Active” has a very specific definition that is both counter-intuitive and self-serving. The TRP bylaws do not care how much money or volunteer effort a person has devoted to state or federal GOP candidates, the Republican National Committee, or GOP-affiliated national groups such as the Young Republicans or College Republicans; the definition requires that the person has made “a quantifiable contribution including, but not limited to, time or money to Tennessee Republican Party, his County Republican Party, or any recognized auxiliary organization of either.” Art. IX, Section 1(C).

By custom, a “quantifiable contribution” means a donation of as little as $10, but it has to be to the TRP or a county party in Tennessee. Attending a Lincoln Day dinner counts, as does membership in the local Republican Women’s chapter (although men are not allowed to hold leadership positions, make motions, or vote on motions), which in many counties is the only GOP group that actually holds regular meetings. The time period considered is the past two years; a lifetime of GOP support is irrelevant if a person has not written a check to the RINO-controlled TRP or local GOP within the past two years. Talk about “pay to play”!

The “bona fide” standard is putty in the hands of the RINO leadership of the TRP. In Tennessee, we have seen Republican candidates for the Fifth Congressional District removed from the ballot (Robby Starbuck, Morgan Ortagus, and Baxter Lee) prior to the primary election when the TRP determined that they were not “bona fide.” The same thing has happened in less-visible races elsewhere in the state, including to candidates for the TRP’s State Executive Committee. When Robby Starbuck challenged his removal from the ballot in 2022, the Tennessee Supreme Court refused to intervene, concluding that the determination of “bona fide” status is entirely within the purview of the TRP as an internal housekeeping matter.

Emboldened by that decision, the TRP has gone so far as to retroactively nullify an election after the Secretary of State certified the results, on the risible basis that the winner did not satisfy the amorphous “bona fide” test.

The manipulation and selective application of the “bona fide” test are commonplace at the local level, where Tennessee’s 95 counties hold reorganization meetings every other year to elect new officers to run county Republican parties. Only “bona fide” Republicans are eligible to vote in the reorganization meetings, or to run for an officer position. The RINOs in charge of county parties appoint “friendly” (i.e., biased) credentials committees to disqualify conservatives who would support a change in direction. How biased are they? In 2021, the Blount County GOP appointed to the credentials committee a Trump-hating wannabe lobbyist, Ted Boyatt, who didn’t even reside in Blount County at the time. Boyatt was apparently selected primarily for his willingness to do the bidding of the TRP’s RINO leadership.

In my county (Blount), a woman who had voted in 35 Republican primaries was recently deemed not “bona fide” to participate in her precinct convention because she had not contributed $10 to the TRP, even though she reports that she made a $1,000 contribution of the local GOP congressman, Rep. Tim Burchett. Others were turned away because—despite consistently voting in the GOP primaries—they did not meet the strict “three out of the last four” formula. Tennessee Stands and Tennessee Conservative News have reported similar instances elsewhere in Tennessee.  Shenanigans involving “bona fide” status have also been reported in Williamson County. “Bona fide” status is like a game of Three Card Monte, with the grassroots Republicans being played for suckers.  

Undoubtedly such abuses exist throughout Tennessee, and will continue, unless and until Tennessee gets rid of open primaries and requires voters to register by political party. Only registered Republicans should be allowed to vote in the Republican primary, and the ridiculous “bona fide” test should be abolished. Once the primaries are closed, a Republican will be anyone who is registered as a Republican.

The only impediment to this reform in Tennessee is the reluctance of RINOs to relinquish control of the state’s GOP apparatus. Grassroots conservatives should demand that the legislature close the primaries. Until that happens, the TRP is a faux Republican party. 

  1. For people who have not lived in Tennessee long enough to vote in the requisite number of GOP primaries, the bylaws expressly allow the individual’s voting record in a prior state be included, although some members of the TRP’s governing body, the State Executive Committee (including “conservative” Terri Nicholson), dispute this. Art. III, Section 1(A), footnote 1.
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