IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

GOP donor retreat for 2024 hopefuls collides with Tennessee expulsions fallout

Trump and Pence are among those who will be in Nashville this weekend as state Republicans face accusations of racism after expelling two Black Democrats from the Legislature.
Expelled Rep. Justin Pearson, Rep. Gloria Johnson, and expelled Rep. Justin Jones
State Reps. Justin J. Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones in Nashville, Tenn., on April 7.George Walker IV / AP file

Former President Donald Trump and other 2024 hopefuls will be descending on Nashville this weekend for a long-ago scheduled GOP donor retreat, but many state Republicans are worried that the recent expulsion of two Black Democrats from the Tennessee Legislature may overshadow the event.

The arrival of high-profile Republican candidates and their potential donors comes just over a week after Tennessee Republicans took the unprecedented step of removing Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson for having led protests against gun violence on the chamber floor. A third Democrat — Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white — survived her expulsion vote, sparking accusations of racism that focused national attention on the GOP-led House.

The fallout from those votes comes as the national GOP is already mired in struggles over how to balance policies and issues that are popular among the conservative base — support for abortion restrictions and opposition to new gun restrictions — but deeply unappealing to swing voters in battleground states that will play a vital role in next year’s elections.

“What happened in the state Capitol last week — I don’t see how it has any positive impact on the Republican Party. Not even a minute amount,” Eddie Mannis, a former Republican member of the Tennessee state House, said in an interview.

Mannis, who in 2021 became the first openly gay Republican member of the state Legislature, left office earlier this year after just one term, alleging that Republican leaders in the chamber had silenced his efforts to guide them away from their intense focus on social issues.

“There’s no doubt in my mind these things steer the national party off course,” he told NBC News.

Tennessee House Republicans were largely caught off guard by the intense national attention sparked by their decision to expel Jones and Pearson. Leaked audio from part of a recent meeting of Republican state representatives included several legislators angrily complaining about how Democrats had portrayed their actions as racist.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee state House GOP caucus did not respond to questions from NBC News.

Republicans in Tennessee who are involved with the party at a state and national levels are now trying to figure out how to move forward in a way that could help smooth over the criticism facing party leaders.

“We have to remind ourselves that perception does matter — and if it was easy enough to perceive, for an outsider, that there were racial implications, we’re just going to have to understand that going forward we cannot act in a way that might be perceived as racially insensitive or racist entirely,” said Oscar Brock, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee.

“One of the unfortunate consequences of having a supermajority is that you tend to think you don’t have to listen to the minority party,” he added.

Many GOP officials and activists who spoke to NBC News defended the expulsions, saying the only misstep was not removing Johnson as well.

“The only thing I was disappointed about was that they didn’t also expel Gloria Johnson, only because now it gives the narrative … that somehow this is racist, and it’s not racist,” said Rick Williams, a local GOP activist who co-chaired Trump’s two previous presidential campaigns in a suburban Nashville county.

Jones, Pearson and Johnson had led supporters in chants calling for restrictions on guns after a shooting at a Nashville school killed six people, including three 9-year-old children. The three legislators broke House rules by speaking when they were not recognized to do so, with Jones and Pearson addressing protesters with a bullhorn.

John Stanbery, a member of the executive committee of the Tennessee GOP, compared the actions of the “Tennessee Three” to the Jan. 6 rioters — saying that the expulsion punishment was appropriate — but acknowledged that the decision to expel them was “politically, not a smart move.”

The rapid and heavy-handed decision to deal with those actions through expulsion — rather than something less severe but meaningful, like voting to censure the legislators — has led to hand-wringing among Tennessee Republicans.

“All of this did nothing to punish [Jones and Pearson]. In the end, they’re up hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers” and probably up in fundraising too, Jim Garrett, the former chairman of the Davidson County GOP — the Nashville area Republican Party apparatus — said in an interview.

Jones and Pearson were both reinstated this week after council and commission votes at the local level.

“It was a net loss for Republicans,” added Brock. “What did we gain? We gained a whole bunch of negative publicity.”

Tennessee Republicans made headlines again this week after GOP Gov. Bill Lee called on the state House to pass the equivalent of a red flag gun law, only to have the Legislature take abrupt steps less than 48 hours later to adjourn their session until next week, after dealing with the state budget, making it a near certainty a gun bill won’t land on the governor’s desk anytime soon.

Those actions are now likely to put pressure on 2024 Republicans this weekend.

Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, who has not yet announced his 2024 plans, have not commented publicly on the expulsion of Jones and Pearson. Spokespeople for Trump and Pence did not respond to questions from NBC News.

“None of the consequences of the action were helpful to the Republican Party,” Brock said. “And now you’re going to have … donors and candidates this weekend being asked what they think of all this, and it’s going to make them uncomfortable.”