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Tennessee’s primary elections were held Thursday to determine party nominees for governor, Congress and state legislative seats.
A handful of ballot initiatives and district attorney races were also on the ballot in some counties, as well as Supreme Court retention for all of the justices.
Through 14 days of early voting, turnout was down 23.8% compared with that point in the August 2018 election, when there was an open governor’s race with contested Republican and Democratic primaries. Compared with the same point in 2014, turnout was down 15.4%.
Here’s a look at some of the top contests:
Democrat Jason Martin, a Nashville physician who criticized Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, won his primary race to challenge Lee in the fall. Martin defeated Memphis council member JB Smiley Jr. by a thin margin, and Memphis community advocate Carnita Atwater finished a distant third. Lee ran unopposed in the GOP primary as he sought a second term, marking the first time in about three decades an incumbent governor has had no primary opponent.
Tennessee has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006.
Earlier this year, Tennessee’s GOP-dominated General Assembly split left-leaning Nashville into three congressional districts with the goal of flipping a seat from Democrat to Republican. Longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. House Rep. Jim Cooper announced he wouldn’t seek reelection because he felt there was no path for him to win.
On Thursday, Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, from Columbia, emerged as the GOP nominee from among nine candidates in the 5th District. Among those he defeated were former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, from Nashville, and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead, of Franklin.
State Sen. Heidi Campbell from Nashville was the only candidate running in the Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, five out of Tennessee’s nine congressional members ran unopposed in the primary: U.S. House Reps. Diana Harshbarger, Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlais, John Rose and Mark Green.
Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, and Republican Reps. David Kustoff and Chuck Fleischmann faced underfunded challengers in their primaries. In the 9th District, Cohen defeated M. Latroy Alexandria-Williams, with Charlotte Bergmann winning the Republican nod against Leo AwGoWhat and Brown Dudley. Kustoff defeated three primary opponents in the 8th District, Danny Ray Bridger Jr., Gary Dean Clouse and Bob Hendry, with Democrat Lynnette Williams defeating Tim McDonald for their party’s nomination. In the 3rd District, Fleischmann won his race over Sandy Casey and will face Democrat Meg Gorman in the fall.
In the 6th District Democratic primary, Randal Cooper defeated Clay Faircloth to advance to take on Rose. And in the 4th District, Wayne Steele beat Arnold White in the Democratic primary to challenge DesJarlais.
Republicans currently hold seven of Tennessee’s congressional seats, while Democrats fill two.
In the Republican-supermajority Legislature, all of Tennessee’s 99 state House seats are up for election this year. There are currently 15 open seats, the majority of them held by Republicans. Twenty-one seats featured contested Republican primaries and nine included contested Democratic primaries.
Some sitting lawmakers lost their primary races.
Republican Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville didn’t survive a challenge from the right against Bryan Richey, an insurance agent from Maryville.
Republican Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster gospel singer and songwriter known for her serenades at the statehouse, lost to Michael Hale, a Smithville funeral home owner and farmer.
The openings include the seat of disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada, who was ousted from the top position in 2019 after a series of scandals. Former GOP Rep. Robin Smith resigned earlier this year after facing federal charges that allege she ran a political consulting kickback scheme with Casada and his former chief of staff, neither of whom have been charged to date.
Justin Jones, a Black activist known for holding demonstrations at the Capitol, was elected Thursday to a House seat for a Nashville district. Jones, 26, was once temporarily banned from the Capitol after he was arrested for throwing a cup of liquid at Casada. That ban has since been lifted.
In the Senate, 17 of 33 seats are on the ballot, four with contested GOP primaries and two with contested Democratic races.
All five Tennessee Supreme Court justices were retained. Jeff Bivins, Sarah Campbell, Holly Kirby, Sharon Lee and Roger Page were up for an eight-year retention election, meaning voters simply decided whether to let them keep their seats. Rejections are extremely rare.
Other Key Races
Tennessee’s most populous county, Shelby, featured a couple of key races.
County Mayor Lee Harris was challenged by Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan. Harris, a Black Democrat, was seeking his second four-year term. Morgan, a white Republican, has served on the council since 2016.
Republican incumbent and longtime Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who has held the position since 2011, faced Democratic civil rights attorney, law professor and former county commissioner Steve Mulroy.
With all county precincts reporting results Friday, Mulroy defeated Weirich in the district attorney’s race, and Harris outlasted Morgan in the contest for mayor.
Mulroy and Weirich clashed in debates, and the issue of abortion prosecutions under the state’s pending “trigger law” became an issue. The law essentially would ban all abortions statewide and make it a felony to perform the procedure.
Mulroy said he would make prosecution of those who perform abortions an “extremely low” priority. Weirich has not said outright whether she will or won’t prosecute doctors who perform abortions, instead saying that doing so would violate Tennessee code forbidding prosecutors from issuing “a broad and hypothetical statement without an actual charge or case.”