By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With no statewide positions on the Tennessee primary ballot on Thursday, much of the attention this election season has focused on congressional and state legislative races.
An open congressional seat in western Tennessee attracted a baker’s dozen of candidates to enter the fray for the Republican nomination, while U.S. Reps. Scott DesJarlais and Diane Black are trying to fend off primary challenges from GOP candidates who are trying to position themselves to the right of the incumbents.
In the Tennessee General Assembly, all 99 House seats and 16 of 33 Senate seats up this year. Thirty-eight GOP incumbents are facing challenges by candidates seeking to join the strong Republican majorities in both chambers.
While state Rep. Jeremy Durham has suspended his campaign amid accusations of sexual harassment outlined in a state attorney general’s report, the Franklin Republican remains on the ballot. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, have made contributions to Durham’s opponent Sam Whitson.
Voters will also decide whether to retain or replace three newly appointed state Supreme Court justices and seven appeals judges. Only one justice has ever been defeated in a Tennessee retention election. And unlike two years ago when Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey bankrolled an unsuccessful effort to oust three justices appointed by Democrats, there been no concerted effort this year to oust anyone from the bench.
Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Fincher’s announcement this spring that he wouldn’t seek re-election to his 8th District seat stretching from Memphis through rural northwestern Tennessee set off some of most spirited campaigning of the year.
The district is heavily Republican and is considered a safe GOP seat in November’s general election. Of the 13 Republican candidates vying to succeed Fincher, five have raised significant amounts of money for their campaign. They are radiologist and radio station owner George Flinn; state Sen. Brian Kelsey; former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff; Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and businessman Brad Greer. From that group, all but Greer, who is from Jackson, are from the Memphis area.
In the 4th District, which runs southeast from the suburbs of Nashville to the outskirts of Chattanooga, DesJarlais is being challenged by Murfreesboro real estate attorney Grant Starrett.
DesJarlais, a physician from Jasper, has survived cancer and a series of revelations that included affairs with patients. He also urged a mistress to seek an abortion and once held a gun in his mouth for hours outside his ex-wife’s room. He now opposes abortion rights.
DesJarlais, a perennial favorite among national pundits to be defeated in the primary, won the nomination in 2014 by just 38 votes. DesJarlais was an early supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and the congressman has hammered Starrett for being a California native “trust fund millionaire.”
Starrett has loaned his campaign nearly $900,000.
In the 6th District, which runs northeast from the Nashville suburbs to the Cumberland Plateau, Black is seeking to fend off the tea party-styled challenge of former state Rep. Joe Carr of Murfreesboro. Black has heavily outspent Carr, but the challenger has had relied heavily on conservative talk radio to attack the incumbent as a member of the “establishment.”
Carr surprised many observers when he came within 9 percentage points of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor and presidential candidate, in the 2014 Senate primary. But Alexander largely ignored the Carr campaign during that nomination fight, while Black has gone on the offensive against her challenger this year. Black campaign mailers have targeted Carr for living outside the district boundaries and for being a perennial candidate.