Tennessee Republicans declared Monday that they've lost faith in House Speaker Glen Casada after an unprecedented vote by rank-and-file GOP members.
Senior Republican leaders released a letter calling on Casada to resign, and Gov. Bill Lee announced he's ready to call a special session if the Franklin Republican does not do so.
That came after the House GOP caucus met behind closed doors for nearly three hours this afternoon in a downtown Nashville hotel to deliberate the speaker's fate. They voted 45-24 for a non-binding resolution stating they have no confidence in his leadership.
"Today House Republicans sent a clear message," Lee said.
Casada has served nearly 20 years in the state House of Representatives and has been a top leader for more than a decade. He became speaker last January, following the retirement of Nashville Republican Beth Harwell.
Casada joined the legislature when it was still run by Democrats, and his accomplishments include helping to build the Republican Party's nearly three-quarters majority in the state House of Representatives. A skilled campaigner and fundraiser, Casada has assisted in the recruitment and strategies of dozens of Republican lawmakers.
But he's also been dogged by questions about his personal life. While running for House majority leader in 2016, Casada publicly denied rumors that he had an extramarital affair.
Casada has since divorced, and in an interview with WPLN shortly before he was formally named speaker, Casada said he was willing to face scrutiny about his personal life.
"You don't see me hide," Casada said. "My life is an open life, and just watch how I live."
But after texts were leaked to the media in which Casada and his now-former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, traded lewd remarks, the scrutiny came back with a vengeance. Sent in the summer of 2016 and obtained last week by The Tennessean, those messages show Casada egging the aide on as he brags about a sexual encounter in a restaurant bathroom, and other such exchanges.
"Like father, like son," Cothren wrote in one message about his personal life, indicating the close relationship between the two men.
The leaks also included messages obtained by NewsChannel 5 in which Cothren disparaged African Americans. Only one of those went to Casada, though it's not clear if he responded.
Casada apologized for the lewd texts, calling them embarrassing, but insisted that he's changed since then, and he attempted to reassure other Republicans that no more damaging information would come out. However, some high-ranking lawmakers have continued to call for his resignation.
Even Gov. Bill Lee told The Tennessean on Thursday that Casada's actions don't reflect the integrity of public office.
"If an employee in my administration acted in a way that wasn’t consistent to that," he said, "they wouldn’t be in my administration."
But Lee doesn't have the ability to force Casada's resignation, nor do lawmakers. Legislators could hold a vote to kick him out of the House — a rarely used penalty that requires a two-thirds majority. But because speakers don't have to be members of the legislature, that might not be enough to force him from office.
"At best, the answer to that question is very murky. There is not a clear-cut mechanism on the House floor to remove a speaker.”
So far, Casada has remained defiant. He left Monday's caucus meeting without addressing reporters but later issued a statement indicating he still hopes to hang on.
"I'm disappointed in the results of today's caucus vote," he said. "However, I will work the next few months to regain the confidence of my colleagues so we can continue to build on the historic conservative accomplishments of this legislative session."
But as opposition to his leadership snowballed throughout the day, it became less likely that he'll be able to hold on. Even the Tennessee Republican Party, which has stayed out of the controversy, was calling for his departure.
"The events and actions surrounding Speaker Casada have been a distraction from the great accomplishments of this legislature and Gov. Bill Lee," Scott Golden, the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said in a statement. "The vote of no confidence by the Republican caucus sends a clear message; it is time for the Speaker to heed the advice of the majority of his fellow legislators and step down."