TAMPA BAY, FL — Following appearances before the Tennessee delegation to the Republican National Convention Tuesday morning by Ben and Craig Romney, two of presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney's five sons, East Tennessee congressman Jimmy Duncan took stock of the changes in the Tennessee political landscape since he entered Congress in 1988.
"Never in my life could I have imagined it," said Duncan, who represents the state's 2nd District, a traditionally Republican one — the "it" being Tennessee's conversion from a politically balanced state with disproportionate Democratic representation in Congress to one that has tilted almost completely the GOP's way.
When he entered the House a generation ago, Duncan reminded his audience, there were seven Democrats in that body and two Republicans. The ratio is now reversed, with the governorship and Tennessee's two U.S. Senate seats also in Republican hands.
What goes on this week at the RNC's affair here and at the Democrats' own convention in Charlotte next week will doubtless provide clear signals as to whether the nation, still somewhat balanced as to partisan affiliations, will tilt one way or the other.
The Republican National Convention of 2012 couldn't have begun under more dubious auspices, with some of the forecasts regarding Hurricane Isaac targeting the Tampa Bay area, where the event is taking place this week.
The result was that RNC chairman Reince Priebus was forced to announce over the weekend that the planned first day of the convention, on Monday, would be eliminated, pending further word on the course of nature. The events scheduled for Monday were forced into other parts of what was now a three-day convention calendar matching the Democrats' already abbreviated plans for their convention.
The Tennessee delegation was holed up at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, a homey but elegant place worthy of that name, some five miles from Tampa by a causeway that looked more than vulnerable to any roiled-up waters.
Some delegates were busy with pre-convention preliminaries, others were touching base with friends or making new ones, and others were whiling away the day. Scott Golden, an ex-Memphian who works for 8th District congressman Stephen Fincher, got in nine holes of golf, but the wind and rain kept alternating enough surprises to keep him out of any kind of groove. "Shoot in the 40s?" he was asked. "At least," he said.
Golden had also been keeping up with the work of the Republican rules and platform committees, where a drama had been developing through the previous week. Memphis lawyer John Ryder, a national committeeman for Tennessee who has been named assistant parliamentarian for the convention, shed some light on that at a Sunday afternoon reception hosted for the delegates by GOP state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville.
As Ryder explained it, the forces of libertarian icon (and also-ran presidential contender) Ron Paul had rebelled against at least two revisions made by the party's rules committee in the run-up to convention week. One — Article 12 — would give the standing RNC the power to make other rules changes between conventions. The other — Article 15, a complicated one — would in essence give established party organizations more power over the approval of convention delegates.
An organization calling itself the Republican Liberty Caucus was vowing to fight the changes on the convention floor, something that could disrupt the well-ordered itinerary and keep it from peaking in prime time on Tuesday night.
Even in the small talk that got traded by delegates at the reception, it became obvious that there was indeed a schism between Republican factions, one that had gone mainly unnoticed by the media — and in ways surprising to the delegates themselves. Beth Campbell of Nashville, a former Memphian, was jolted to realize that her brother Willis Ayers, attending his first convention as a Newt Gingrich delegate from Shelby County, was apparently a member of the dissident faction. Ayers had previously supported the failed challenge of Woody Degan, a Tea Party favorite, to Norris' reelection.
Arnold Weiner, the eccentric but hard-working Memphis Republican who serves as president of the East Shelby Republican Club, compared notes with another Tennessean who apprised him of the Paul faction's challenge to GOP normalcy. Weiner likened the situation to one within the last year in which he was able to mobilize virtually every living long-term Republican in Shelby County to turn back an organized Tea Party bid for control of the club.
Debra Maggart, the GOP caucus chair in the Tennessee House, speculated that much of the damage may have been committed by restless, quasi-libertarian forces in opportunistic coalition with the NRA.
Kathleen Starnes, chairman of the Davidson County (Nashville) Republican Party, ticked off some of the components of that coalition: "9-12ers" (i.e., Glenn Beck disciples); Tea Partiers; libertarians, Ron Paul libertarians (whom she regarded as a separate category); and, in cases like Maggart's, the NRA. But it was more than that, she and Maggart and Campbell agreed. They sensed the rising tide of something bigger even than those parts, a revisionist force that had reared itself in Tennessee in the past year or two and was likely to do so again this week on a national scale.
Indeed, wherever Tennessee delegates gathered on Sunday, the conversation tended to run to anticipations of a suddenly swirled-up internal storm to match the external one that meteorologists were carefully monitoring.
With no official action in Tampa itself, there were two events in the hotel on Monday: the traditional group breakfast and a dinner honoring Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and other members of the Republican legislative leadership.
Speaking at the breakfast were U.S. senator Bob Corker, Chattanooga congressman Chuck Fleischmann, and, as a "surprise guest," well-known pollster/consultant Frank Luntz. Luntz worked the crowd, mixing laugh lines and analytical nuggets. The highlight of Luntz's remarks came when he asked the assembled delegates and alternates how many of them thought Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri, should withdraw from his race.
Akin had made the claim that women possessed the innate biological means to prevent pregnancy from what Akin, in an interview, had called "legitimate rapes." Republicans, from ticket leader Mitt Romney on down, had called for Akin to step aside, and the delegation chorused its assent to that judgment.
All except for three naysayers — one of whom, state representative Joe Carr of Rutherford County, had made a $3,000 bid that won a brief auction held by Luntz for a large portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Looking straight at Carr, Luntz said, "I don't know what you're saying, but you can still have the painting."
Carr would explain later that he agreed with Akin that women did indeed possess certain biological means to close themselves off against pregnancy in cases of violent rape. He further thought that Republicans had no business telling a bona fide Republican primary winner what to do.
To no one's surprise, Luntz confirmed the consensus view that the presidential race between Romney and President Obama is a toss-up.
In his remarks, Corker made a point of addressing the issue of Medicare, simultaneously stroking vice-presidential nominee-designate Paul Ryan, who wants eventually for Medicare to become a voucher program.
The dinner affair featuring Ramsey had originally been scheduled as a Tuesday lunch but in the reshuffling of things had become a full-fledged evening banquet on Monday. Ramsey joked that his listeners, who originally would have been treated to a brief hour or so at lunch, were in for the whole ride now, and he gladly dilated on his prepared remarks.
A highlight of his speech was his recounting of how he came to be lieutenant governor in 2009 through the vote of former Democratic state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. It was an effective reminder of the political sea change that has happened in Tennessee, the one mentioned by Duncan a day later.