Despite Republicans’ overwhelming majority in the state legislature, Rep. Sheila Butt feels like her party could be vulnerable. The potential culprit, she says, could come from Democrats infiltrating Republican primaries. She says this scenario recently played out in a local mayor’s race in Maury County, and she wants to know if it’s more widespread.
“In our family, at home, our family made our decisions,” she said. “I think it might be time in the state of Tennessee for our Republican family and Democratic family to make those decisions.”
At a Republican Executive Committee meeting this month, members grew raucous with interruptions and shouts when the issue of closing primaries was raised. Rep. Butt is asking the committee for their recommendation on the matter before she files a bill.
Among those who spoke out against closing off primaries was Hobart Rice, a longtime Republican activist and car salesman from East Tennessee.
“We have grown by bringing in like-minded Democrats and independents. If we start treating the Republican Party like an exclusive club, then we’re going to turn these people off. And that would be a perfect foothold for Democrats,” Rice said. “If we had done this 30 years ago, then East Tennessee would still be the only Republican part of the state,” he said, pointing to the big influence of independent conservatives have in Republican elections.
After the committee meeting, Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney gently nodded at the spirited discussion that had just transpired.
“I think you saw today that it’s a very important issue for the people in this room. I think it’s a debate that is really … a debate. It’s one of those little things within the family. Some people think that closed primaries are going to be better to build the party. Some people think it’s open primaries are better,” Devaney said. “I have been an advocate of open primaries. But we’ll continue to discuss it.”
Back in 2012, Republicans were pushing the idea to close primaries, with Rep. Tony Shipley saying that open voting practices “pervert the process.”
Tennessee is one 14 states that have open primaries.
Activists on both sides say one advantage to closing primaries is that it would require party registration. Therefore, when canvassers are out looking for voters, they can also encourage voters to register for a party.