NASHVILLE -- Identity politics -- as in who's a Republican and who's not -- has become a major issue in the Tennessee House District 31 GOP primary.
Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, faces opponent Ron Travis, of Dayton, in the race and, last week, Rhea County Republican election officials challenged as many as 30 would-be GOP primary voters on grounds they were Democrats and not "bona fide" Republicans.
Now Cobb is charging that Travis himself is little more than a Democrat in disguise.
Travis, an insurance agency owner, said he has considered himself a Republican since he began voting.
"Let me tell you, I am a Republican. I have been a Republican since I was 18 years old. I choose the Republican Party. I have voted in Democratic primaries in the past. I have voted for the person."
He acknowledged he has "voted for the person" and said he has never voted for Cobb because he doesn't think the state representative has done a good job.
"I've never put much faith in Jim Cobb," he said. "I don't like him representing me. I just don't think he does anything for us."
Cobb, a TVA retiree seeking a fourth term, said Travis has voted in Democratic primaries at least twice in the past four election cycles.
"His voting record and his entire past reflects a Democrat leaning," Cobb said, adding that the district leans Republican, making it "very hard" for a Democrat to run and win.
"So this idea of running on the Republican ticket was a plan started before the filing deadline," Cobb continued. "The plan is to get as many Democrats as possible to vote in the Republican primary."
Still, Cobb said he isn't behind the challenges of some would-be GOP primary voters by Rhea County Administrator of Elections Theresa Snyder and other Republicans.
Tennessee primaries are open -- the state has no registration by party -- but crossover efforts can be challenged if the voter is not a "bona fide" party member. A voter also can take an oath declaring allegiance to a party when the person wishes to cast a ballot in a specific primary.
Among those challenged was Maxine Vincent, wife of Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent. She acknowledged in a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview that she usually votes for Democrats, but said she took an oath to the GOP.
She said Snyder told her the challenge held, but Vincent said she was allowed to cast a provisional paper ballot, which she said Snyder told her would be "rejected."
According to State Election Coordinator Mark Goins, a Republican, the provisional ballots could be subject to party challenge in a tight race.
Cobb said he's "staying completely away" from the challenges.
"I have told people I'm certainly not going to participate in enforcing a challenge," he said. "As many Democrats would vote for me as for [Travis]."
Stopping short of accusing Cobb of being behind the move, Travis said he understands 25 to 30 people have been challenged in the GOP primary. But, he said, he is told that Republican election officials are letting "some people of the Democrat persuasion through. ... I don't know how they're determining it."
That raises questions, he said. No Democrat is running and the GOP candidate will become the next representative. Given that, there is natural interest among Democrats to cross over, Travis said.
"I've had people say this is the worst feeling in the world where they say they can't vote," Travis said.
Travis was not challenged by the Tennessee Republican Party from running as a Republican. GOP Chairman Chris Devaney in April moved to block former state Sen. Micheal Williams, currently Union County mayor, from staging a comeback as a Republican in Senate District 4. As a senator, Williams quit the GOP and became an independent.
District 31 used to include all of Rhea County and part of Hamilton County. But the district underwent substantial changes in Republican-led legislative redistricting this year, and no part of Hamilton is in the district. The newly drawn district now contains Rhea, Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties and a part of Roane County.
Early voting continues through Saturday in the Aug. 2 election.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.