NASHVILLE - Hamilton County Republican mayoral nominee Weston Wamp survived an effort by second-place finisher Sabrena Smedley on Friday to scuttle his May 3 victory in the county's GOP's primary in a vote before the Tennessee Republican Party's Primary Board.
The panel, which is comprised of the state Republican Party's executive committee, voted 35-10 to reject Smedley's assertion that crossover voting by Democrats irreparably marred the election's outcome, thus propelling Wamp to a 318-vote margin over Smedley, chairwoman of the Hamilton County Commission, in the three-person race in which Matt Hullander came in third.
"The Republican State Executive Committee protected the rule of law this evening by overwhelmingly rejecting the baseless appeal of Sabrena Smedley and Matt Hullander," Wamp said later in a statement. "For that I am grateful, but let's not make the mistake of whitewashing what just happened. This was not an inquiry to see if future primaries should be open or closed. This was a brazen attempt by my former opponents, Smedley and Hullander, to overturn a certified election in our county, something that has never happened before and should not happen again."
In her 21-page complaint to the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee, Smedley through her attorney Catherine White had alleged there was a "highly organized campaign by the Democratic Left to adulterate the votes of bona fide Republicans."
It asserted among other things that 1,698 Democrats had crossed over to vote in the mayoral Republican primary, an allegation Smedley raised to GOP State Executive Committee members. The Times Free Press confirmed that number of crossover votes in an analysis of county voter data, but because of the secret ballot, Smedley's contention that the Democrats voted for Wamp could not be verified.
"I'm here today to address the issue of party raiding by Democrats in the recent Hamilton County Republican primary," Smedley told members who met via Zoom, raising concerns about "non-bona fide" Republicans crossing over to vote in Hamilton County's GOP primary.
Smedley said the Tennessee General Assembly has put "safeguards" in place to ensure only bona fide Republicans can vote in a primary or "otherwise declare allegiance" to the party. But she said bona fide Democrats have an "obvious and inherent conflict with our party's values. They are not qualified to vote in our primaries.
"Unfortunately," Smedley added, "these statutory safeguards are no longer working, and everyone knows it."
She noted the executive committee had asked the Republican-dominated legislature to close party primaries in 2018.
"But your concerns were ignored, and that's why I'm here today to ask you as the State Primary Board to safeguard the integrity of our primaries."
Smedley charged there was an "organized effort" by Democrats to jump into the GOP primary, an effort she said that became evident when a number of Democrats boasted about it, citing among others Chris Anderson, a former Chattanooga city councilman and a member of the state Democratic Executive Committee, as well as others who reportedly "bragged" about that.
Smedley said Democrats will continue to cross over and participate in GOP primaries unless the party sends a strong signal this will no longer be acceptable.
She asked GOP Executive Committee members to disregard the primary vote tallies and instruct the Hamilton County Republican Party to call a party caucus to select a nominee.
"You are the guardians of the heart and soul of our party," she said. "I am asking you to close the barn gate so every true Republican can trust their primary vote truly does count."
Wamp, the son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Chattanooga, told executive committee members he is a lifelong Republican who has voted in every Republican primary for which he was eligible. He said neither Smedley nor Hullander raised concerns during voting.
"Losing close races is hard," he told Republicans, adding that taking losses "graciously" is what is needed in a free society. "In this case, the challenger is asking to throw out the rule book once it's over."
The Wamp campaign had noted Smedley was endorsed by several public sector unions, including the "liberal teacher union," the Hamilton County Education Association Fund. His campaign claimed that promotion of that endorsement amounted to Smedley herself seeking crossover Democratic votes.
In advance of Friday night's meeting, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden sent a memo to party executive committee members making clear what the process involved.
"It will be noted this is not a legal process," Golden wrote. "It is a political process." And the chairman added that "all decisions shall be final with no appeal available."
Smedley's attorney Catherine White in her filing said Smedley was seeking one of two outcomes: declaring Smedley the winner of the GOP mayoral primary or else directing that another primary be held between Wamp, Smedley and Hullander.
Hullander joined in the challenge initially. But Republican State Executive Committeeman Brian Hornback, of Knoxville, said there was a communication from Hullander that he was dropping his part of the challenge.
Randy Ellis, a state executive committee member, called for the vote, saying, "nobody know but God and the person who voted know how they voted," a reference to the difficulty of determining who benefitted most from Democratic crossover. He voted in Wamp's favor.
State Executive Committeeman Ken Meyer, a Chattanooga Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Zach Wamp in the elder Wamp's first congressional primary in 1994, voted yes on certification of the May 3 results, as did Emily Beaty of Cleveland, Tennessee.
Among the 10 Republicans who voted to support Smedley's position were Bobby Wood, a former state representative from Harrison, and Tina Benkiser, of Chattanooga.
Others voting no were Scott Smith, Terri Nicholson, Michelle Forman, Ron McDowell, Cyndi Miller, Gary Kee, Kathryn Bryson and Angie McClanahan.
Certified results by the Hamilton County Election Commission showed Wamp, a businessman, investor and co-founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation, received 14,428 votes to Smedley's 14,110 votes. Hullander received 12,171 votes.
The county's general election will be Aug. 4, and Wamp will face Democrat Matt Adams.
Crossover voting is nothing new in Tennessee, a state which has no registration by party. When Democrats ran the state, Republicans often crossed over into Democratic primaries where the summer contests decided not only the nominee for offices ranging from county commission to U.S. Senate but often who would be the general election winner. But with Republicans now in power statewide and in most counties, including Hamilton, Democrats are returning the favor.
Still, a number of Republicans continue to cross over and vote in Democratic parties. A Times Free Press analysis of the 62,503 people who voted in the March 2020 primary election showed 431 people who voted in the Democratic primary had previously voted Republican in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primary elections. That's out of 37,174 Democratic votes in that primary.