How political pressure drove Tennessee Republicans against a close ally during COVID-19 debate

November 4, 2021

 

As featured in The Tennesseean by Yue Stella Yu.

For Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers, the COVID-19 special session resembled a tug of war.

On one end was an increasingly vocal conservative base, asking to end all mask and vaccine mandates and protect individual liberty.

On the other end were prominent business groups — longtime allies of the traditionally pro-business Republican Party and a surprising foe of a GOP-backed agenda — pleading with the legislature to not go too far.

The final product, approved past midnight Saturday, represents a compromise. The legislation includes a sweeping rollback on COVID-19 restrictions, preventing local governments and schools from putting in place mask mandates except in the most dire circumstance while carving out many exemptions for businesses.

But too many business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, the measure still hamstrings business owners’ pandemic response.

Opposition: Businesses protest ‘unnecessary government intrusion’ in TN legislature’s new COVID-19 bill

The division revealed a rift between Tennessee’s Republican Party and the state’s business community. It’s a fissure that has become more and more common across the nation, as businesses find themselves growingly at odds with the GOP on social and cultural issues.

The Republican push to regulate businesses over COVID-19 deviates from the party’s conventional wisdom, which resists government intervention in the private sector, political consultants and experts said.

“If you look at this historically, it is hard to believe that the NFIB and the Republican Caucus are on different sides of an issue,” said Kent Syler, former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Nashville, and now a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

The shift, experts said, is a symptom of the polarizing political landscape in Tennessee, where Republicans must appeal to more conservative voters to fend off primary challengers from the right.

“They are worried about the next primary,” Syler said. “They are trying to protect their right flank. They don’t want someone running against them, saying they are pro-masks, pro-vaccine mandates. It’s a symptom of political polarization and somewhat a one-party Republican rule in Tennessee.”

The shift to a more conservative state

Historically, Tennessee Republicans have aligned themselves with business interests. With low tax rates and right-to-work laws, Republicans in Tennessee tout the business-friendly environment the state has built over the years.

“Businesses have been well taken care of in Tennessee,” Syler said.

But in recent years, the tone shifted. For example, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, R-Kentucky, cautioned businesses to “stay out of politics” when they protested Georgia’s voting law.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee signed a series of anti-transgender bills into law earlier this year despite criticism from prominent corporations. Lee spokesperson Casey Black said businesses don’t govern the state.

“Organizations have opportunities to weigh in on the legislative process but ultimately, Tennesseans, through their elected representatives, determine the law in our state,” Black previously said.

What’s changing?: How Tennessee’s COVID-19 restrictions will change after the three-day special session

During the special session last week, state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said “unprecedented times” warranted proposals regulating businesses’ COVID-19 policies.

“To my friends in the business community … we certainly understand and recognize that this bill is contrary to some of the tenets we’ve held very sacred,” he said in a Senate committee hearing.

In turn, businesses reacted with opposition — a rare spectacle in Tennessee’s history, said Richard Pacelle, political science professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

“It’s in this situation when businesses, which have long been very close aligned with Republican Party, (are) starting to say, ‘Wait a minute, we are not buying all of that. We like the lower taxes, we like the less regulation, but we don’t want you delving into these sort of things that could cost us,'” he said.

Primary protection in polarized politics

The shift away from those traditional principles demonstrates the need for Republicans to satisfy their increasingly conservative voters as American politics becomes more polarized, political science experts say.

The Volunteer State is increasing split along urban and rural lines, as Republican Party cements its strongholds in rural areas. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to win a statewide contest in Tennessee, beat his opponent in the gubernatorial race by a landslide 15 years ago, winning every county. He won just three counties a dozen years later in a U.S. Senate race, losing by 10 points.

The widening partisan divide has given way to a “four-party system,” with progressives and far-right conservatives pulling their party colleagues to two extremes, Pacelle said.

Both parties have become more “ideologically driven” than “constituent based” over time, said Tom Ingram, a veteran political consultant and former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee.

“You’ve got these extremes left and right that bring pressure on governing bodies, and it’s a tough thing to deal with, because it’s (more about) ideology than it is about practical schools of constituent policies,” he said.

Under this climate, Republicans in a deep-red Tennessee no longer have to worry about Democratic challengers, but instead fear infights with the far right, Syler said.  Reluctance to crack down on COVID-19 restrictions could hurt Republican incumbents in primaries, he said.

Additionally, as businesses became involved in social issues apart from business measures, Republicans considered them stepping “out of line,” Ingram said.

“They feel like businesses are getting out of their line a little bit, and so it’s the Republican legislators sense that, ‘Well, we can get out of our line a little bit,'” he said. “That’s a balancing act that businesses and legislators need to think about, because, at the end of the day, what matters most is good jobs for Tennesseans.”

But Ingram said the end product from the legislature did not swing too far either way.

“The pressures played out and the thoughtful middle prevailed at the end, to some degree,” he said.

Could business complaints make a difference?

Just a week before curtailing Tennessee’s COVID-19 restrictions, lawmakers approved an $884 million package to help secure the $5.6 billion Ford Motor Co. investment in West Tennessee.

Lee and Republican lawmakers hailed the deal as a victory for Tennessee’s economy for generations to come.

But the Detroit automaker giant was among many companies that expressed concerns a week later about Tennessee’s Republican-backed proposal to water down COVID-19 regulations.

“We are very concerned, however, with the current legislative proposal that would prohibit companies from requiring masks,” said a Ford executive in a text to lawmakers. “Wearing masks is what’s kept our facilities running through this.”

Business groups say they surprised by how restrictive the measure was and how quickly the legislature approved it.

Restricting authority: Tennessee lawmakers restrict authority of schools, local health departments over COVID-19

But despite the hiccup, policy experts say there won’t be an imminent damage to the firmly-rooted relationship between the Republican Party and business communities.

Jim Brown, Tennessee state director of NFIB, characterized the special session as a “three-day blur,” leaving business groups barely any time to react.

“The legislature also passed a sweeping bill without much deliberation, transparency and public input,” he said in a statement. “With few exceptions, committee testimony wasn’t allowed, and amendments arrived as hearings began.”

“Organizations have opportunities to weigh in on the legislative process but ultimately, Tennesseans, through their elected representatives, determine the law in our state,” Black previously said.

What’s changing?: How Tennessee’s COVID-19 restrictions will change after the three-day special session

During the special session last week, state Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said “unprecedented times” warranted proposals regulating businesses’ COVID-19 policies.

“To my friends in the business community … we certainly understand and recognize that this bill is contrary to some of the tenets we’ve held very sacred,” he said in a Senate committee hearing.

In turn, businesses reacted with opposition — a rare spectacle in Tennessee’s history, said Richard Pacelle, political science professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

“It’s in this situation when businesses, which have long been very close aligned with Republican Party, (are) starting to say, ‘Wait a minute, we are not buying all of that. We like the lower taxes, we like the less regulation, but we don’t want you delving into these sort of things that could cost us,'” he said.

Primary protection in polarized politics

The shift away from those traditional principles demonstrates the need for Republicans to satisfy their increasingly conservative voters as American politics becomes more polarized, political science experts say.

The Volunteer State is increasing split along urban and rural lines, as Republican Party cements its strongholds in rural areas. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to win a statewide contest in Tennessee, beat his opponent in the gubernatorial race by a landslide 15 years ago, winning every county. He won just three counties a dozen years later in a U.S. Senate race, losing by 10 points.

The widening partisan divide has given way to a “four-party system,” with progressives and far-right conservatives pulling their party colleagues to two extremes, Pacelle said.

Both parties have become more “ideologically driven” than “constituent based” over time, said Tom Ingram, a veteran political consultant and former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee.

“You’ve got these extremes left and right that bring pressure on governing bodies, and it’s a tough thing to deal with, because it’s (more about) ideology than it is about practical schools of constituent policies,” he said.

Under this climate, Republicans in a deep-red Tennessee no longer have to worry about Democratic challengers, but instead fear infights with the far right, Syler said.  Reluctance to crack down on COVID-19 restrictions could hurt Republican incumbents in primaries, he said.

Additionally, as businesses became involved in social issues apart from business measures, Republicans considered them stepping “out of line,” Ingram said.

“They feel like businesses are getting out of their line a little bit, and so it’s the Republican legislators sense that, ‘Well, we can get out of our line a little bit,'” he said. “That’s a balancing act that businesses and legislators need to think about, because, at the end of the day, what matters most is good jobs for Tennesseans.”

But Ingram said the end product from the legislature did not swing too far either way.

“The pressures played out and the thoughtful middle prevailed at the end, to some degree,” he said.

Could business complaints make a difference?

Just a week before curtailing Tennessee’s COVID-19 restrictions, lawmakers approved an $884 million package to help secure the $5.6 billion Ford Motor Co. investment in West Tennessee.

Lee and Republican lawmakers hailed the deal as a victory for Tennessee’s economy for generations to come.

But the Detroit automaker giant was among many companies that expressed concerns a week later about Tennessee’s Republican-backed proposal to water down COVID-19 regulations.

“We are very concerned, however, with the current legislative proposal that would prohibit companies from requiring masks,” said a Ford executive in a text to lawmakers. “Wearing masks is what’s kept our facilities running through this.”

Business groups say they were surprised by how restrictive the measure was and how quickly the legislature approved it.

Restricting authority:Tennessee lawmakers restrict authority of schools, local health departments over COVID-19

But despite the hiccup, policy experts say there won’t be an imminent damage to the firmly-rooted relationship between the Republican Party and business communities.

Jim Brown, Tennessee state director of NFIB, characterized the special session as a “three-day blur,” leaving business groups barely any time to react.

“The legislature also passed a sweeping bill without much deliberation, transparency and public input,” he said in a statement. “With few exceptions, committee testimony wasn’t allowed, and amendments arrived as hearings began.”

Jeff Bates, president of Nashville-based TA Staffing, said allowing those who quit their jobs due to COVID-19 vaccine mandates to collect unemployment benefits is surprising to him.

“This one, many feel is anti-business legislation,” he said. “Historically, Tennessee has been very protective of the unemployment trust fund that all employers pay into. I don’t understand how someone choosing not to be vaccinated is out of work through no fault of their own.”

Business groups bombarded lawmakers with letters urging them to vote against the legislation. The NFIB last week warned legislators a favorable vote could hurt their voting records as rated by the organization.

But opposition of this degree likely won’t hurt the Republican leadership, Syler said.

“Long-term, is it really going to change that dynamic of the two working together on issues? Probably not,” he said. “They’ll move on to issues where they are in agreement of probably pretty quickly.”

Pacelle said rifts with businesses could hurt the state in the long run, even if the impact is trivial now. Lowered ratings from business groups, for example, could be used against an incumbent in primary races, he said.

“When you get a state like Tennessee that’s so politically dominated by one party, it’s hard for that to have an impact,” he said. “But you are gambling with losing businesses.”