By Jim EllisJan. 7, 2020 — The House open seat total reached 40 over the weekend as veteran Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe (R-Johnson City/Kingsport) announced that he will not seek a seventh term later this year. Rep. Roe is the former mayor of Johnson City, Tenn., and ostensibly entered federal office when he defeated first-term Congressman David Davis in the 2008 Republican primary.
Roe initially pledged to serve only five terms. He changed his mind and successfully sought re-election in 2018 saying that he had unfinished business as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. As we know, the Democrats would go onto win the majority that year, thus relegating Roe to the committee’s ranking minority member position. Losing the chairmanship virtually eliminated the foremost reason for him remaining in Congress.
The 1st District is one of the safest Republican seats in the country. The last time a Democrat was elected to the House from easternmost Tennessee dates all the way back to 1878. The longest-serving representative from the region is former Rep. Jamie Quillen (R) who held the seat for 34 years after his original election in 1962.
The 1st District occupies the eastern tail of the Volunteer State. It contains 11 counties and part of Jefferson, a domain it shares with the 2nd District that is anchored in Knoxville. The largest 1st District population centers surround the cities of Johnson City and Kingsport. Sevier County, with a population figure of just under 90,000, is the third largest segment. It contains the cities of Sevierville and the tourist centers of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the district’s southern sector.
The TN-1 electorate votes heavily Republican. President Trump carried the seat 77-20 percent in 2016. Mitt Romney defeated President Obama here, 73-26 percent, and John McCain recorded a 70-29 percent victory margin in 2008. In his six victorious congressional elections, Rep. Roe averaged 77.8 percent of the vote in what were always lightly contested general election campaigns.
Immediately upon Rep. Roe announcing his retirement, former Kingsport Mayor John Clark announced that he will enter the open Republican primary. Also expected to run is businessman Todd McKinley who placed second to Roe in the 2018 Republican primary, a campaign that featured three challengers. Roe scored a 74 percent victory against his trio of Republican opponents, with McKinley notching 17 percent of the vote.
The national open seat count is now beginning to approach the levels seen in the earlier elections from this decade. Since the 2012 election cycle, the open seat count has fallen between 46 and 65 seats. In the current 2020 campaign, we now see 29 Republicans and 11 Democrats either retiring, resigning from office, or running for another position.
Though the open seat count is heavily lopsided toward Republicans, the partisan division isn’t likely to change a great deal. Of the 29 GOP incumbent-less campaigns, 17 must be considered safe, including TN-1, with three more as likely Republican and five that lie in the lean GOP category. Two North Carolina Republican open seats, the state’s 2nd (Rep. George Holding) and 6th (Rep. Mark Walker) districts, have been converted to Democratic domains in the court-ordered re-map for the 2020 campaign.
The west Texas seat that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso, from which Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) is retiring, looks to be leaning toward the Democrats in the early going. And, Georgia Rep. Rob Woodall’s (R-Lawrenceville) seat in the Atlanta suburbs, the electorate from which re-elected him with only a 419-vote margin in 2018, must be considered a pure toss-up. Nine of 11 Democratic opens look to be safely in the party’s column while the other two at least lean their way at this point.
Therefore, despite what is now becoming a large number of open House seats with Republicans heavily on defense, there doesn’t appear to be a strong possibility of a major party switch. Today, it appears the Democrats would gain less than five seats in the open category despite Republicans risking almost three times the number of districts.