Gov. Bill Haslam seems to be a pretty cheerful guy, and why shouldn’t he be? There isn’t a creditable Democrat anywhere on the horizon to challenge him in November, and the only challenger he faces in the Republican Primary thus far is a bearded “Duck Dynasty”-looking fellow who goes by the name of Mark “Coonrippy” Brown.
Coonrippy says the only reason he’s running is to force the return of his beloved pet raccoon, Rebekah, which was seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency last year.
Haslam has the luxury of working with a supermajority of his party in the state General Assembly. And the last few months have brought reports that some of his administration’s public education reforms may be yielding results.
Yes, these should be golden days for Haslam, who already has banked more than $4.5 million in his campaign coffers for re-election. But this is Tennessee, and things are rarely what they appear to be.
A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll shows Haslam’s job approval rating dropped from 61 percent in the last poll to 47 percent today. Poll officials told the Associated Press the decrease was registered primarily among Democrats and voters who view themselves as political independents. The good news for Haslam is he is still widely liked by members of his own party.
I don’t think the governor is fretting too much about the MTSU poll. As I noted earlier, he is all but a lock to win re-election. Even so, forces within the General Assembly and his own family could create a few headaches along the way.
His older brother has been doing a corporate impression of Billy Carter lately. Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns and CEO of Pilot Flying J, saw three more of his company’s sales managers plead guilty in federal court to charges stemming from a fuel rebate fraud investigation that began last year when federal agents raided the truck stop company’s corporate headquarters in Knoxville.
The publicity from the Pilot Flying J scandal has most likely hurt the governor’s standing among non-Republican voters, but that’s not the only reason his poll numbers are down. His decision last year to turn down federal money to expand Medicaid (TennCare) has also damaged his likability among moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats.
Haslam said recently he is still pursuing what he calls a Tennessee Plan for expanding health care services to needy state residents. But the governor said “it’s not easy” to craft a solution that will be approved by officials in the Obama administration and can be passed by Tennessee lawmakers.
And there’s the rub. Haslam knows the latter is pretty much an impossibility. He does not carry the kind of clout in the General Assembly to convince the hardcore Obama haters of his party that (as he told me earlier this month) “there is too much at stake” for the state to simply turn its back on hurting residents and strained hospitals.
But unless a miracle occurs soon, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.