That was 1998, and Saltsman said his party has since gained a supermajority in the state General Assembly, elected back-to-back Republicans to the governor’s office and now holds seven of the state’s districts in the U.S. House, as well as both Tennessee’s seats in the U.S. Senate.
“We now have complete control over politics in the state of Tennessee, and that has made all the difference,” Saltsman, who has also served as presidential campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and as a commentator for Fox News and MSNBC, told members of the East Tennessee Republican Club on Monday
He said the challenge today for the Tennessee Republican Party is to keep civility among its own ranks. Saltsman, who is founder and chairman of S&S Strategies in Nashville, said Republicans must resist fighting among themselves. He said it is OK for “Republicans to disagree with other Republicans,” but they should leave name-calling out of policy debates.
“I hate the word RINO (Republican In Name Only),” he told the club, which was founded last year following a split within the Washington County Federated Republican Women. “What gives you the right say someone isn’t conservative enough to be a Republican?”
Saltsman said he is also no fan of legislation filed in the General Assembly to close partisan primaries in Tennessee. The GOP’s State Executive Committee has approved a resolution asking the state to require residents register by party affiliation.
Currently, Tennessee law allows registered voters to request the partisan primary ballot they wish to mark on election day.
Third District State Executive Committee members Todd Fowler and Anita Hodges Taylor split on the issue, with the Johnson City commissioner among the 45 voting “yes,” and Taylor being one of the 14 “no” votes.
Saltsman said Tennessee Republicans have worked very hard during the last two decades to become a “big tent” party for all voters.
“We win when everybody votes,” he said. “We win when we get more people to our party.”
The former GOP chairman said he believes President Donald Trump is in a good position to be re-elected in 2020.
“You may not agree with all his tweets and everything he says, but it’s hard to argue with his results,” Saltsman said. “He’s taken the Reagan Coalition of the 1980s and combined it with independents. We are actually negotiating trade deals that are good for us.”
Saltsman, who also worked for former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, said the growing Democratic field for 2020 was shaping up to be “a race to Crazyville.” He said many of the announced Democratic candidates for president are taking their leads from newly-elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Saltsman said the Republican strategy is simply “to let AOC to go on every talk show she can.”