State Rep. Johnson ‘seriously’ weighing 2024 challenge to U.S. Sen. Blackburn

From left, then-expelled state Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis; state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville; and then-expelled state Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, raise their fists as they walk across the Fisk University campus after hearing Vice President Kamala Harris speak April 7 in Nashville. Harris came to support the two Democratic lawmakers who were expelled from the Tennessee General Assembly. Both were later reinstated. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Conservative political firebrand meets progressive political firebrand?

That could be a possibility in Tennessee's upcoming 2024 U.S. Senate race.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, said she is "seriously" weighing a bid for the seat now held by Republican Marsha Blackburn, who was elected to the seat in 2018 after previously serving 16 years in the U.S. House.

"I am considering it, yes," Johnson said this past week by phone. "There have been a whole lot of people, very serious people, asking me to do it. And so I told them I would seriously consider doing it.

"It needs to be done. People want somebody who will stand up for Tennessee families, and they just don't feel Marsha's doing the job. There's a lot of issues with Marsha, I believe. Mainly, what I hear is she's not voting for Tennessee families," Johnson added.

Blackburn, 70, is expected to seek re-election. Her political team had no comment about the possibility of Johnson running.

Another Democrat, Nashville attorney Joanne Sowell, meanwhile, has formally established a campaign committee to run for the Senate, a Federal Election Commission filing shows.

Sowell works in corporate law and mergers and acquisitions at the Wood Stabell Law Group. Sowell attended the University of Tennessee and received her law degree from Tulane University Law School. Her husband, Joe Sowell, is chief of development at HCA Healthcare.

FEC records also show Dylan Lee Fain filing paperwork as a Democrat.

A retired public school teacher, Johnson, 61, and two other state House Democrats drew a tsunami of state and national news coverage during this year's legislative session. Majority House Republicans expelled or sought to expel them for holding an impromptu House floor protest over a mass shooting at a private Nashville school that left three 9-year-old children and three adults dead.

Democratic Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis, both of whom are Black, were expelled along partisan lines. Johnson, who is white, survived ouster by a single vote.

The move effectively turned all three into political martyrs as the "Tennessee Three," which among other things resulted in multiple network television news show appearances, a visit with President Joe Biden at the White House and a political fundraiser for them thrown by U.S. Senate Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

Jones and Pearson were reappointed to their seats by their respective county council and commission and are now running to retain their seats in special elections.

Still, mounting an intense statewide effort could mean Johnson giving up her state House seat.

Sowell has been active in Middle Tennessee nonprofit work, including Impact100 and Emerge Tennessee, while also volunteering with Room at the Inn. She founded Rosa Hermosa, a Nashville clothing boutique, to provide educational funds for girls in Honduras, NFocus Magazine has reported.

"Tennessee deserves a senator who is committed to working across the aisle on the issues that matter the most, one who will represent the state with dignity and put partisanship aside," the Nashville Scene reported Sowell saying through a spokesperson

Blackburn: 'Politically incorrect and proud of it'

In announcing her first Senate bid in 2017, Blackburn described herself as a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative" and added she is "politically incorrect and proud of it."

"I know the left calls me a wingnut or a knuckle-dragging conservative," she said. "And you know what? I say that's all right. Bring it on."

Any Democrat running against her faces long odds in succeeding. In 2018, Blackburn, a House member at the time, faced former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the Senate race. It was an expensive and brutal contest that she eventually won with 54.7% of the vote to Bredesen's 43.9%.

Blackburn had the full-throated endorsement of then-President Donald Trump in the contest during the campaign.

In 2022, during the U.S. Senate Committee's hearings on Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Blackburn pelted the nominee on multiple hot-button issues. At one point, she asked Jackson to define the word "woman."

"I can't, " Jackson said.

"You can't?" Blackburn said.

"Not in this context. I'm not a biologist," Jackson said.

"The meaning of the word woman is so unclear and controversial that you can't give me a definition?" Blackburn asked.

Still, Blackburn has worked across the aisle at times with Democrats. The most recent example of that being the introduction of a bill she and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, dubbed the Kids Online Safety Act.

It would require social media companies to make their platforms safer for children while providing parents tools to protect children online.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-285-9480.