By Jim Ellis
Aug. 8, 2016 — Volunteer State voters went to the polls in their unique Thursday primary last week to choose congressional and state office nominees. The evening featured two of the most watched congressional races in the state, the GOP primary challenge to three-term Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-South Pittsburg) and the crowded open 8th District from which three-term Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Frog Jump/Jackson) is retiring.
Former Mitt Romney campaign official and attorney Grant Starrett challenged Rep. DesJarlais, who had been plagued for two cycles with the past scandal of engaging in extra-marital affairs with several of his female medical practice patients. Yet, he managed to survive in close contests. Two years ago, the congressman nipped former state Sen. Jim Tracy (R) by a mere 38 votes in winning with less than a majority in a multi-candidate field.
On Thursday, DesJarlais’ percentage was much better, defending himself against Starrett’s attacks from the ideological right and winning 52-43 percent, from a vote pool of just under 47,000 cast ballots. Though Starrett talked a great deal about ethics in his ads and public appearances, he did not reference DesJarlais’ affairs. Starrett had a significant resource advantage, possibly outspending the incumbent by 75 percent or more. We will see the final expenditure totals when the candidates soon file their post-election financial disclosure reports. Starrett will have likely spent in the $1.5 million range. Rep. DesJarlais now looks to be a sure re-election bet in the fall.
In the open 8th, the Republican primary quickly winnowed out many of the 13 candidates, and when the votes were finally tabulated two clearly separated themselves from the pack. Former US Attorney David Kustoff (R), who featured former Arkansas governor and two-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in his commercials, topped physician and former Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn who likely spent over $3 million of his own money.
Kustoff outpolled Flinn, 27-23 percent, with Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell attracting 18 percent support. State Sen. Brian Kelsey was next with 13 percent, and political consultant Brad Greer posted 11 percent. The remaining eight candidates all finished in single-digits. A grand total of 61,522 votes were cast in the race, the largest primary turnout yesterday for either party in a Tennessee district.
Despite Democrats representing TN-8 in its relative configuration for 28 of the past 34 years, the party nominee, airline employee Rickey Hobson (D), will not be a competitive factor in the 2016 general election.
In other primaries, Rep. Diane Black (R-Gallatin) easily turned back a challenge from former state Rep. Joe Carr (R), 64-32 percent. Carr challenged Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2014 Republican primary, scoring 41 percent against the veteran Tennessee politician. He clearly did not fare as well Thursday.
The remaining three House members all strongly defended themselves in intra-party skirmishes. Reps. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), and Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) each won with a greater than 82 percent vote share.
The 7R-2D Tennessee delegation will remain in tact after general election voting. The next primaries occur on Aug. 9, and feature Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The most important contest of that evening is the Republican primary challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1).