Tennessee Primary: Another Upset?

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 5, 2016 — The country’s only Thursday primary took place yesterday in the Volunteer State of Tennessee. No US Senate race was on the ballot there this year, but competition existed within the House delegation.

The state featured one open seat, the 8th District of retiring three-term Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Frog Jump/Jackson), and a total of six primaries in the state’s nine CDs.

The 4th District challenge to Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-South Pittsburg/ Murfreesboro) was very serious. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) again drew competition from the legendary political Ford family, but the contest is not attracting much in the way of attention or challenger financial support. Rep. Diane Black (R-Gallatin) drew a former state representative and statewide candidate, but he, too, was not expected to be a major threat.

The remaining challenges, those to Reps. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City) and Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), were minor. Regarding the latter member, this was the first time since his original election in 2010 that Fleischmann had an easy Republican primary run.

District 4: This was the race to watch.

The 4th District begins in the outer Nashville suburbs and travels all the way to the Alabama and Georgia borders. Dr. Scott DesJarlais (R) captured the seat in 2010, defeating incumbent Lincoln Davis (D-Pall Mall) in the GOP landslide year. He won the tightest of primary victories in 2014, surviving a past extra-marital affair scandal that reduced his nomination victory margin to a mere 38 votes over former state Sen. Jim Tracy (R).

This year, he faced attorney and Romney campaign veteran Grant Starrett who, by the July 15 financial disclosure report, had raised more than $1.2 million, a sum almost 75 percent greater than the $700,000 than DesJarlais had obtained. Two minor candidates were also on the ballot, physician Yomi Faparusi and former US Commerce Department official Erran Persley. Neither had put forth much effort, but any anti-DesJarlais vote they claim makes it that much more difficult for Starrett to score an upset.

Starrett, while never mentioning the long-time scandal involving DesJarlais engaging in affairs with his female patients, hits the congressman from the Christian right. Though no public polls were available, it was quite possible that this would be the second incumbent defeat of the week. DesJarlais, however, was better electorally positioned than Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp was for his race, decided at the beginning of this week’s voting period.

DesJarlais prevailed over Starrett 52-43 percent.

District 6: Rep. Black had three Republican opponents, including former state Rep. Joe Carr who challenged Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) in the 2014 Republican primary. Carr received 41 percent in his intra-party challenge to Sen. Alexander’s 50 percent, but he will likely not do as well against the strongly conservative Rep. Black. Her other two opponents, Vietnam War veteran Tommy Hay and respiratory therapist Don Strong were both minor candidates.

Through mid-July, the congresswoman had already spent almost $1.7 million on her primary effort, while Carr had barely raised over $100,000. The 6th District, encompassing the region known as Middle Tennessee, hugs the Kentucky border and gains most of its population around the northern and eastern Nashville outer suburbs. As expected, Black easily turned back Carr 64-32 percent.

District 8: The open West Tennessee CD features the major open seat campaign. It is a foregone conclusion that the successor to retiring Rep. Fincher would be chosen in the GOP primary. Thirteen Republicans were in the race, and the thinking was that the winner would likely take the nomination with a vote total that barely surpassed 20 percent. Of the 13 contenders, the actual contest is among five, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, former Shelby County Commissioner, physician, and ex-congressional candidate George Flinn, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, former US Attorney David Kustoff, and Shelby County Registrar Tom Leatherwood.

Dr. Flinn is the big spender here, likely topping the $3 million mark most of which is self-donated in the form of a $2.7 million loan. None of the other candidates is close in the financial realm, but will this be enough to carry Flinn to the top of the throng of candidates? In 2010, the last time the seat was open, he finished third to Fincher, garnering 24 percent to the winner’s 48 percent.

Mayor Luttrell certainly represented the most people of anyone in the congressional field of candidates, but he has not done well on the fundraising circuit and refused to run negative ads. No one else has even spent $1 million, but Sen. Kelsey and ex-US Attorney Kustoff are coming close.

Crowded fields are always unpredictable, so the finish was watched with interest. In the end, Kustoff outpolled Flinn, 27-23 percent. Surprisingly, the Democrats did not field any strong candidates and are conceding to the eventual Republican nominee, an unusual occurrence for a regional district they dominated for all but two years between 1922 and 2010.

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