Previewing Tennessee Thursday

By Jim Ellis

Tennessee state flag

Tennessee state flag

July 26, 2018 — Next Thursday, Volunteer State voters head to the polls in the only place that holds its statewide primary on a day other than a Tuesday or Saturday. The Aug. 2 Tennessee political card features some intense races, including an open US Senate and governor’s race, along with three open-seat House races in addition to one significant incumbent challenge.

Though the Senate race is open and will be hard fought through November, the primary is set for both parties so we won’t see the usual uptick in activity here next week. Former two-term Gov. Phil Bredesen has the Democratic nomination sewn up, as does US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) on the Republican side.

In the open governor’s race, US Rep. Diane Black (R-Gallatin) and businessman Randy Boyd appear to be the two front-runners, and the two are zeroing in on each other. Boyd, and fellow candidate Bill Lee, are both being hit over making past contributions to Democratic candidates. Rep. Black, running as the most conservative candidate, is taking flack for her role in an unpopular Congress. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Deen and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), emphasizing his “Tennessee Always” slogan, are the top Democratic candidates. But, the real battle to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam (R) lies in Thursday’s Republican primary.

Though many names will appear on the ballot in Tennessee’s nine congressional races, only a few candidates are legitimately competitive.

Reps. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), Scott DesJarlais (R-South Pittsburg), and Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) all have primary opponents, but none appear particularly strong. In the case of Reps. Fleischmann and DesJarlais, both face an easy primary run for the first time in their congressional careers.

The lone incumbent defending himself against a significant challenge is freshman David Kustoff (R-Germantown). Dr. George Flinn, who has run for Congress four times in 10 years, returns for a re-match with Rep. Kustoff. In 2016, the two emerged from a large field of contenders to finish 1-2, but Kustoff carried the seat with just 27 percent of the vote as compared to Flinn’s 23 percent. Armed with at least $3.1 million of his own money, Dr. Flinn is certainly giving the incumbent enough to handle, including attacks upon him for “voting with Nancy Pelosi 227 times,” and for not “shaking up Washington.” In 2016, Kustoff’s campaign theme emphasized him ‘going to Washington to shake it up.’ Instead, Dr. Flinn accuses the new congressman of “going to Washington and selling out.”

The election card also features three open US House seats. In Knoxville, Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R) is retiring after serving 30 years and directly following his father, John Duncan, who spent 23 years in Congress. Vying to replace the Duncan family dynasty, a battle surrounding Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has ensued. The mayor was likely to challenge Rep. Duncan before he decided to retire, so the congressman in turn is publicly backing state representative and well-known local businessman Jimmy Matlock (R-Knoxville) as his successor.

Similarly to the attacks Dr. Flinn is launching about 8th District Rep. Kustoff being too close to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Matlock is questioning whether Mayor Burchett would actually vote for her if he were to win election. When Burchett was a Republican state senator, he voted to keep the Democratic leadership in office even though the GOP had taken the majority. Two other significant candidates are in the race, retired National Guard officer Ashley Nickloes and former national Young Republicans’ chair Jason Emert, but it is likely next Thursday’s winner will either be Mayor Burchett or Rep. Matlock.

In Congresswoman Black’s vacated 6th District, two self-funders have put distance between themselves and their other three opponents. Former state Agriculture Commissioner John Rose and retired Chancery Judge Bob Corlew have spent over $3 million and $1.5 million, respectively, through the July 13 pre-primary reporting period just to win the Republican nomination. It is likely one of the two will become the party standard bearer, which is tantamount to winning the seat in November.

Finally, in what is certainly the most unique of the nomination races, the campaign to replace Rep. Blackburn in the safe Republican 7th District has only one Republican running. State Sen. (R-Clarksville), a retired Army physician who once treated Saddam Hussein after his capture, was originally nominated as US Army Secretary but it soon became clear he could not obtain the requisite Senate votes for confirmation.

Sen. Green then entering the 7th District race when it opened, however, made the other prospective candidates reconsider their own plans, and all decided not to challenge him. Thus, for a safe Republican open seat, Sen. Green is punching his ticket to Congress as an unopposed candidate.

The final week of campaigning promises to launch further political fireworks in the Volunteer State, as the many active primary campaigns draw to a close.

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