Tennessee’s Speaker of the House Beth Harwell announced this weekend that she is running for governor, widening the field and immediately setting off jockeying to succeed her.
As the first woman to lead the Tennessee House of Representatives, the Nashville Republican brings to the race high name recognition and a long legislative record. Among the likely and announced Republican candidates, only U.S. Rep. Diane Black is better known.
But it's not clear how well that recognition will translate into support. Harwell has been criticized by moderate Republicans for not pushing through controversial measures like Medicaid expansion and by conservatives for not doing more to further their agenda.
In the statement announcing her run, Harwell takes credit for eliminating death and gift taxes as well as the Common Core, and for fighting sanctuary cities in her time as state House Speaker.
"Tennessee needs someone who possesses the experience from day one to lead our state to the next level and who has a steady hand when challenges come our way," Harwell said.
Harwell has served in the House since 1988, making her one of the longest-serving lawmakers in Tennessee. She's also been the chair of the Tennessee Republican Party.
The announcement over the weekend was not surprising. Harwell had suggested for months that she would get into the race, but the formal announcement came in a Sunday profile in The Tennessean.
Harwell tells The Tennessean that the focus of her platform will be jobs, cutting taxes, schools and ensuring “Tennessee values” are protected.
Other Republicans running to succeed term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam include former economic commissioner Randy Boyd, businessman Bill Lee and tea party favorite state Sen. Mae Beavers. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is so far the only Democrat in the race.
Race For Speaker Begins
Harwell's decision doesn't just shake up the race for governor. It also kicks off the race to succeed her as speaker.
Two legislators are being tabbed as the early frontrunners. Each would bring a starkly different style.
The next person in line for the speakership is House Majority Leader Glen Casada. The Williamson County lawmaker is known as a smooth yet savvy politician who helped build the Republican majority in the state House of Representatives. And although he rarely raises his voice on the House floor, he's not afraid to retaliate against lawmakers if they cross him.
But Casada lost his previous bid for speaker six years ago — despite going into that race as the favorite. He would also face a tough challenge for the position from Chattanooga Republican Gerald McCormick, who tells the Times Free Press he's interested in the speakership.
McCormick was the majority leader before the current legislative session, when he stepped aside citing personal reasons, but he now says he's ready to return.
McCormick can be a fiery orator — sometimes even taking to task fellow Republicans and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce on the House floor. But for all that, he's ruffled fewer feathers, and he's not regarded as being as ideological as Casada.
The next speaker won't be chosen, however, until after the 2018 election, when Harwell's current term ends. She says she doesn't plan to step down as speaker while campaigning for governor.
But if Harwell stays in the gubernatorial race, next year would be her last in the General Assembly. Tennessee law does not allow candidates to run for the legislature and for governor at the same time.
That would also open up yet another race — for the West Nashville seat that, by the next election, Harwell will have held for three decades.