Gerrymandering Makes One Tennessee Primary a GOP Free-for-All
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The fruits of partisan gerrymandering will be on center stage Thursday as 10 Republican candidates vie to represent the state’s 5th Congressional District, which had been a Democratic stronghold for decades.
The district has been represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper since 2003, but he announced earlier this year that would not seek reelection after Tennessee lawmakers radically transformed the contours of his district.
Where in the past Cooper, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, had primarily represented Democrat-leaning Nashville and its suburbs, the newly revamped district now includes parts of Williamson and Wilson counties and all of Marshall, Maury and Lewis counties — all of the additions rural and Republican leaning.
Heading into Thursday’s primary, the 5th Congressional District is the one seat in the state without an incumbent running for reelection.
These two factors have drawn a slew of hopeful Republican candidates —- nine in all — to the party’s primary, with the presumptive front-runner, at least in the money race, appearing to be Kurt Winstead, an attorney and retired Tennessee National Guard Brigadier General, who has raised a reported $900,000 this election cycle.
His closest competitors in the race are Tennessee’s first female House Speaker, Beth Harwell, who has raised just over $800,000 and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, who has raised just $200,000 but has gotten a boost from a number of super PACs.
The other candidates with a conceivable chance in the race are Natisha Brooks, the lone Black candidate, who owns and operates Brooks Academy, a home-school, and Jeff Beierlein, an Army combat veteran and health care executive.
Also appearing on the ballot are four political newcomers: Tres Wittum, Stewart Parks, Geni Batchelor and Timothy Lee.
Though a number of the candidates have jockeyed for former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, so far he has refrained from direct involvement in the race.
In January he endorsed Morgan Ortagus, a former spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, teasing reporters by saying, “I am told the very strong and impressive Morgan Ortagus is exploring a run in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District.”
But after she announced her candidacy in early February, things began to fall apart for her.
First, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill requiring congressional candidates live in the district they represented, and to have lived in the state for the three years prior.
If signed by the governor, the law’s provisions would have taken effect immediately, disqualifying Ortagus from the ballot.
As it happened Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican, allowed the bill to become law unsigned, but only after the congressional filing deadline had passed.
As a result, because the law’s requirements were not retroactive, Ortagus remained in the race.
Then, on April 19, the Tennessee Republican Party’s executive committee removed Ortagus and two other candidates from the primary ballot for the 5th District. The party stated that official challenges had been filed against the three, obligating their removal from the ballot per party bylaws.
While Ortagus was still evaluating her options, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the Republican Party had not violated open meetings laws, thus keeping her and the others off the ballot.
With that, Ortagus endorsed Winstead and joined his campaign.
State Sen. Heidi Campbell is running unopposed in the 5th District Democratic primary.
One notable thing about Thursday’s primary is that unlike other Southern states, Tennessee doesn’t have runoff elections. As a result, with so many contenders in the race, the “winner” may actually achieve victory with a low percentage of the vote.
Speaking of Lee, three Democrats are competing in the primary Thursday for the right to challenge him in the fall — this despite the fact Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Phil Bredesen in 2006.
The hopefuls are Dr. Jason Martin, who works in critical care medicine in Nashville, who is running on a platform primarily centered on health care; JB Smiley Jr., a semi-professional basketball player and lawyer; and educator and Memphis resident Carnita Atwater.
While the 5th Congressional District is the only House race that’s competitive in the state, two other incumbents are facing primary challenges on Tuesday.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen has a nominal primary opponent in the 9th Congressional District in M. Latroy Alexandria-Williams, a businessman and perennial candidate who has not reported raising any money this election cycle.
Three Republicans are competing to take on Cohen in the November general election: businesswoman Charlotte Bergmann, businessman Brown Dudley and Leo AwGoWhat, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate.
In Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District, Republican incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has a primary opponent, Sandy Casey, who has raised just $21,000, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.
Fleischmann, by comparison, held $2.3 million in his campaign account as of July 15.
Five Members of Congress are running unopposed in their respective primaries. They are Reps. Diana Harshbarger, Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlais, John Rose and Mark Green, all Republicans.