NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Polls closed Thursday night in a Tennessee primary election that will settle a nine-way Republican fight in a reconfigured Nashville congressional district that the GOP hopes to flip. Democrats will choose a nominee for governor in what could be a history-making bid to topple the GOP incumbent.
Two of three Democratic candidates for governor would be the state’s first Black Democratic nominee for that office; the third is a physician running for political office for the first time, spurred by Republican Gov. Bill Lee's hands-off response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee is running unopposed and would have a strong advantage in a general election in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006.
Redrawn congressional districts helped put Tennessee among the states where Republicans hope to flip a seat in a push to reclaim control of the U.S. House, providing the main drama in Tennessee’s primaries. Tennessee held the only statewide elections nationally Thursday.
Nashville's 5th Congressional District drew heavy interest from Republicans after GOP state lawmakers carved Democratic-tilted Nashville into three districts, favoring their party in each seat. The longtime incumbent in the 5th District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, decided to retire, saying there was “no way” he could win reelection under the new redistricting maps. The new district favored Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden by 12 percentage points in 2020.
In the other two Nashville-area districts, the Republican incumbents don't have primary opponents. The new maps weight their districts in their favor.
In the 5th, state Sen. Heidi Campbell has no opponent in her Democratic primary and will take on the Republican winner in November. Two Democrats face off in the new 6th District, which includes more of Nashville, where Republican U.S. Rep. John Rose has a huge fundraising edge.
There is also a full slate of state legislative primary races. Additionally, Thursday is general election night for many local contests. The highlight of those is in Shelby County — which encompasses Memphis — where Republican District Attorney Amy Weirich faces a challenge from Democratic civil rights lawyer Steven Mulroy.
At least in Nashville, anyone who turns on a TV is more likely to see ads for a Republican running for the 5th Congressional District than a candidate for anything else.
Competing TV attacks — mostly run by generically named outside groups with mega-wealthy donors — are trying to sow doubt about the conservative resumes of the three top fundraising Republican candidates: former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles.
Fellow GOP candidate Jeff Beierlein, who flew Black Hawk helicopters in the Army, bought TV ad time to decry the mudslinging. Other candidates in the race are Geni Batchelor, a retired small-business owner; former state legislative staffer Tres Wittum; Natisha Brooks, who runs a home-school academy; Timothy Lee, a paramedic; and Stewart Parks, a real estate businessman.
The election marks the first time voters get a say over a seat that had been subject to months of Republican political brokering.
Political infighting over the carefully crafted district — it meanders through six counties — led the state Republican Party to boot three candidates off the ballot, including Trump's pick, former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. One of the booted candidates, video producer Robby Starbuck, is attempting a write-in campaign.
The governor, meanwhile, can relax on primary night. He avoided a Republican challenge. The last governor to enjoy an unopposed primary was Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1990, said Tennessee legislative historian Eddie Weeks.
Democrats will be sorting out who will face Lee in November. Memphis City Councilmember JB Smiley Jr. or Memphis community advocate Carnita Atwater would be the first Black Democratic nominee for governor in the state's history. Critical-care physician Jason Martin, who lives in Nashville, joined the race as a prominent critic of Lee's pandemic response. Martin has decidedly outraised and outspent the next-highest fundraiser, Smiley.
Weeks said he could not find an African American nominee for governor, Democrat or Republican, in state history. Yet, he noted that in 1876, William Yardley, an African American Knoxville official later elected to the county court, ran as an independent when the Republican Party declined to nominate a candidate for governor. Democratic Gov. James Davis Porter won reelection that year.
Tennessee had a Black Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate as recently as 2020.
Lee, meanwhile, defeated a Democratic opponent by 21 percentage points in 2018. He goes into November with a huge fundraising edge and the power of incumbency.