This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, at 1:45 a.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — Incumbent state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, emerged the winner Tuesday night in his hard-fought Senate District 10 race with Democrat Glenn Scruggs.
Gardenhire, 72, won the district, which includes portions of Hamilton and Bradley counties, by 53.18% to Scruggs' 46.82%, according to unofficial results posted on the Tennessee Secretary of State's website.
The senator said he was "extremely pleased" with the victory and "looking forward to serving another four years, later adding that "the race, contrary to what some people thought, it never was a close race.
Out of the total 84,616 votes cast, Gardenhire garnered 45,003 to Scruggs' 39,613.
Scruggs, a Chattanooga Police assistant chief, carried the Hamilton County part of the district, which includes the city of Chattanooga, by 36,863 votes or 54.53% to Gardenhire's 30,736 votes or 45.47%.
But voters in Republican stronghold Bradley County more than made up for that. Gardenhire picked up 14,267 or 83.84% of Bradley's 17,017 votes cast. Scruggs won 2,750 or 16.16% of the vote in Bradley.
"We didn't pull it off," Scruggs said in a videotaped concession speech. "And so I just wanted to let you guys know that we're OK over here at Team Scruggs. When I jumped into this race I promised myself two things. One, to run a clean campaign, and two, always tell you guys the truth, and so I think I've been successful in doing both of those things."
Scruggs said that "of course it stings, I'd be lying if I said it didn't." But he recalled when he first began the race, he got "some good campaign advice from a local politician that I really respect. He told me that the voters are never wrong. The people choose the leadership that they want. And the people have spoken and Sen. Gardenhire won. I've already given him a call to offer him my congratulations."
The Senate District 10 seat was one of two that minority Senate Democrats hoped to pick up in the 2020 election as they sought to eke out gains against Republicans who have 28 members compared to five Democrats in the 33-member chamber.
Democrats did succeed in Senate District 20 in Nashville. Democratic challenger Heidi Campbell bested incumbent Sen. Steve Dickerson, a moderate Republican. It was the first gain Democrats have made in years. In the new 112th General Assembly, they will have six members.
In other Hamilton County legislative contests, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, had an easier time defeating her Democratic opponent, Joan Farrell, in the House District 26 race as did Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, who turned back a challenge from Democrat Joseph Udeaja.
During his campaign, Gardenhire, a Senate Finance Committee member, cited his roots in the community, noting he grew up "blue collar." He touted his support for public education, lower taxes and less government while also citing his support for additional transportation for community road needs.
In a campaign advertisement targeting conservative Bradley County voters, Gardenhire said he is "protecting our conservative values" and Second Amendment rights.
"My opponent wants to restrict our right to bear arms. I don't," he said.
But Gardenhire's "fried chicken" comments during a local television news interview in which he was describing his work to encourage supermarkets to locate in East Chattanooga, a predominantly Black community, ignited a controversy that drew national attention.
"The obesity rate in the inner city is bigger than anywhere else," said Gardenhire. "Because what do they do? They go to a 7-Eleven or a convenience store. There's fried chicken so they get them some fried chicken on the way home and have dinner on that."
Critics, including Scruggs, charged that Gardenhire played into racial stereotypes. Scruggs noted that "food deserts" — areas where food with good nutritional value is hard to find — impact low-income areas regardless of race.
Scruggs, 49, ran as a progressive on a number of issues, calling for criminal justice reform and sharply criticizing Gardenhire for his 2015 support for a law that allowed handgun-permit holders to carry firearms in parks.
"Todd voted to allow folks the ability to walk through public parks with rifles out," the assistant police chief said in a video featuring himself at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga. "Who thought that was a great idea? It was irresponsible then, it is irresponsible now."
He called for criminal justice reform, saying that as a 26-year police veteran he knows the "harsh reality" that the system is "not working for our children or our community" and that jails are overcrowded with low-level offenders.
Gardenhire, meanwhile, criticized the lack of racial diversity in the Chattanooga Police Department, saying the city had fewer Black officers. During an interview with WTVC, Gardenhire suggested that a police officer should not arrest a person caught driving drunk, but should instead drive that individual home if the officer knew the person. Pressed about whether he favored letting drunk drivers go, Gardenhire said he was talking about intoxicated people who were sitting in their car.
The Gardenhire/Scruggs contest was the second most expensive state Senate contest in Tennessee, according to third quarter financial filings with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. It was exceeded only by the Campbell and Dickerson slugfest in Nashville .
Gardenhire's pre-general election report filed last week show he had spent $305,000 through Oct. 24. Scruggs had yet to file his pre-general election report, which was due Oct. 27. As of Sept. 30, Scruggs had spent $34,834 but still had $113,000 in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. He later began airing television ads.
Terms of office for members are effective "from the day of the general election" according to the Tennessee Constitution. State senators and representatives' annual salaries are $24,316. The 112th General Assembly is expected to convene Jan. 12.
We may not know results on election night
Election night usually ends with results. This year will probably be different due to record-breaking early voting and the deluge of voting by mail-in ballots. Read more on how the Times Free Press plans to handle this and where we get information on election results.