Anti-incumbent fever fails to take hold in Tennessee primaries

Chuck Fleischmann
Chuck Fleischmann

Hamilton County general and Tennessee primary election stories

photo U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais speaks at the La-Z-Boy furniture plant on Thursday, June 2, 2016, in Dayton, Tenn.
photo FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2013, file photo, state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, right, appears in court with attorney Worrick Robinson, left, Nashville, Tenn. Mark Lovell, one of Todd’s opponents in Thursday’s Republican primary race, tells news outlets that he posted a $100 bond for the lawmaker on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 as a “good deed.” Todd had been in a Memphis jail after being arrested Monday on a theft charge.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - In what many have billed as the year of the political outsider, Tennessee's incumbent congressmen and state legislators fared pretty well in last week's party primaries.

Except for two state House members involved in scandals, everyone holding a state or federal office survived their respective Republican or Democratic primaries.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., ran his fourth primary campaign for the 3rd District seat and for the first time had no major opponent. Instead he faced two little-known challengers, including one who lives in Georgia.

The result? Fleischmann racked up an 83.91 percent victory in the 11-county district that includes Hamilton County and Chattanooga. He faces Democrat Melody Shekari in November's general election.

In the nearby 4th District, challenger Grant Starrett outspent U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the GOP primary but the South Pittsburg physician beat Starrett by 52.12 percent to 43.34 percent, according to unofficial results.

That's a far cry from DesJarlais' 38-vote victory in 2014 over state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, in the GOP primary. The sprawling 16-county district includes half of Bradley County as well as all of Meigs, Rhea, Marion, Grundy, Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties.

And in the 6th District, U.S. Rep. Diane Black fended off tea party-style hopeful Joe Carr in their Republican primary. Black, seen as a 2018 candidate for governor, took 63.59 percent over Carr's 32 percent in the district that takes in many of Nashville's suburbs.

The two sitting legislators who lost re-election bids were both engulfed in personal controversies of their own making.

Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, suspended his campaign after a Tennessee attorney general report detailing allegations of sexual harassment against nearly two dozen state Capitol female staffers, lobbyists and interns.

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, was caught on video taking down his primary challenger's campaign signs and was arrested by Shelby County deputies.

Elsewhere in the U.S., political outsider and billionaire businessman Donald Trump put his moderate-to-right rivals to flight and pushed the GOP's establishment and independent well-funded ideological groups back on their heels.

But that didn't happen in Tennessee.

"That's an interesting question," said state House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. "There's a lot of noise being made about the 'establishment' and incumbents."

He said groups like the billionaire Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity went after a number of veteran lawmakers, but the incumbents largely prevailed by a "landslide."

"I think maybe we've seen that the blind, anti-incumbent fever has peaked and maybe people are actually making reasonable decisions," McCormick said.

Incumbents usually have some built-in advantages, such as name recognition and ability to raise money from various interests with issues coming before the Tennessee General Assembly or U.S. Congress.

A number of them, including 10th District state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, had no primary opponents this year. Gardenhire faces Democrat nominee Khristy Wilkinson, a member of the outsider camp, in November.

Khristy Wilkinson, a former UTC adjunct professor and Bernie Sanders supporter, had a shoestring budget and still bested a better-funded opponent in the Democratic primary by several hundred votes.

Nick Wilkinson - no relation - is deputy administrator for economic development for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. A Democrat who formerly held the 10th District Senate seat, Berke gave Nick Wilkinson $12,000 both personally and from his political action committee.

The loss could be a blow to Berke, who is seen as a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.

GOP 'ready to run'

The fact that most GOP incumbents who did have party primaries won their races "shows that the Tennessee Republican Party is well-positioned for the November races," state GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes said.

Haynes said voters "overwhelmingly approve of the direction of our state" under Gov. Bill Haslam and the "achievements of our General Assembly" under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

"We are ready to run on our record of reform this fall," Haynes said.

In a state where Republicans rule the General Assembly with supermajorities, the political battles have largely centered on intra-party primary battles fought along the fault lines of hard-right and center-right.

Under Haslam, center-right Republicans who sometimes took it on the chin in GOP primaries have started fighting back. The governor tapped his political action committee to favored incumbents and candidates for open seats. Hard-right groups charged the governor's friends were going after some incumbents, but the result was mixed.

In Hamilton County, only two of the five incumbents House members - one Republican and one Democrat - even had primary opposition in Thursday's election. And with no personal controversies or missteps to trip them, both handily won their respective nominations.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, trounced challenger Ethan White by 84.47 percent to 15.53 percent in House District 29. The 27-year-old challenger, a Realtor and Collegedale city councilman, campaigned aggressively but raised relatively little money.

And in House District 28, Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, beat Dennis Clark, 82.13 percent to 17.87 percent.

Carter had insider support as well as help from some outside groups, including Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee and an anti-annexation group thrilled with Carter's successful crusade ending municipal annexation by ordinance.

AFP-Tennessee sent mailers backing Carter and staffers and volunteers knocked on an estimated 1,000 doors, a spokeswoman said. Haslam also came to Chattanooga for a Carter fundraiser.

For Carter, elected without opposition in 2012 and 2014, running for a third term was different. He said his personal encounters with constituents while going door to door taught him a lot and should make him a better legislator.

"I've never worked as hard nor have I enjoyed it as much," Carter said, noting he had lost 27 pounds going door to door in near 100-degree temperatures in June, July and early August.

"I've met and got friends among the very people I represent. And it's a joy. It's just been amazing."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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