The Chattanooga Republicans seeking to replace Democratic state Sen. Andy Berke agree on lower taxes, marriage between a man and a woman and other red-meat GOP issues.
But education - and how the state funds it - may be a dividing line between Todd Gardenhire and Greg Vital. At a candidate forum Thursday night, Gardenhire described the state's public universities as a collective "sacred cow" he's not afraid to tip over.
"Some of these universities think they can get anything they want from the Legislature," said Gardenhire, a financial consultant. "I personally think there's too much emphasis on higher education and not enough emphasis on grammar school and kindergarten."
But Vital said he doesn't see a clear relationship between the amount of money spent per student and what he called "the results" - test scores, graduation rates and other outcomes. A developer and former executive at Life Care Centers of America in Cleveland, Tenn., Vital described learning as a complex "lifelong process" and would not commit to slashing college budgets.
"It's a balancing act," he said. "We do need to invest in education."
Gardenhire later raised the possibility of a vocational school closer to downtown Chattanooga. He complained that "inner city kids" who want to learn a trade are currently forced to travel north to Sequoyah High School in Soddy-Daisy.
"That's crazy," he said.
Vital did not specifically endorse a centrally located vocational school, but he said manufacturing companies won't bring their plants and factories to Tennessee without "a qualified workforce."
"We've got to teach for the jobs," he said.
Sponsored by the Hamilton County Young Republicans and held at the downtown restaurant Jefferson's, the forum gave both men ample opportunity to express their conservative bona fides. As a result, there wasn't much apparent difference in ideology.
Backgrounds were probed. Both men said they had clean criminal histories, and each agreed to release personal income tax returns to the media.
"I'd have to call my accountant," Vital said to laughs. "It's so complicated I just sign it and swear by it."
Berke left the District 10 seat after redistricting made his seat more GOP-friendly. He's now campaigning to be mayor of Chattanooga.
Quenston Coleman, Andrae McGary and David Testerman are running in the Democratic primary. District 10 includes portions of Hamilton and Bradley counties.
Primary elections are Aug. 2.