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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / State Rep. Robin Smith speaks to the Hamilton County Republican Women's Club at Mountain Oaks Tea Room on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020 in Ooltewah, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, is challenging Tennessee House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby for the group's No. 2 post in leadership elections, saying she believes a different vision is needed in a time where "easy wins are relics of our past."

In her pitch to GOP caucus members, the former Tennessee Republican Party chair says that although Republicans in Tuesday's elections retained their supermajority status in the 99-member chamber, "Elections in Tennessee are demonstrating the need for a strategic approach to more than just activity in even-numbered years with a demand for strong communications, fundraising and implementation on an ongoing basis."

Smith told the Times Free Press on Thursday that while rural Tennessee remains staunchly Republican — the GOP won control of the state Senate from Democrats in 2009 while House Republicans achieved operational control in 2011 — urban and some suburban areas are becoming increasingly competitive.

"I also know this hostile environment, I'm not a stranger to this because of where I live," Smith said. "My district is not a hard, hard-right district. If you look at the election returns, I had to outperform the president at many of my polling boxes because of the changing environment in Tennessee."

Smith, who was known to be weighing the leadership challenge, told Faison she planned to run Wednesday. Smith, who ran for Congress in 2010 but lost the GOP primary to now-U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, was elected to the House in 2018. The caucus election is set for Nov. 24.

Faison, who represents a rural Northeast Tennessee district, said in an interview, "I think that Tuesday night proved that the current leadership has done a heck of a job" and went on to cite efforts by Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Majority Leader William Lamberth of Portland as well as himself.

Faison said he has walked 516 miles, going door-to-door campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates since last summer.

"And I drove in this state back and forward from Memphis to Murfreesboro to Northeast Tennesse. I drove over 4,000 miles since this summer," he said.

"What I'm saying is, between all the efforts of all of us in leadership, we retained all 73 seats. And I think in this climate it shows what we're doing is working," Faison said.

This year has been "crazy," Faison added.

"We've had COVID, we've had tornadoes, we've had a tumultuous year, and we were able to hold onto our majority. I think that speaks volumes to where we're at. We've told our story in such a way that Tennesseans trust us to stay there and keep running the show. That's strong."

Faison, who was elected caucus chair in late 2018, said, "I want to be a part of telling our story. And I feel that I've done such a good job of telling our story that we've come back with all 73 when a lot of other places haven't come back with their majority."

He added, "I feel confident that I will win, and I did exactly what I told our caucus I would do. I feel like it's a wonderful thing that she's running, but I feel confident I'll win."

Smith, a political and business consultant who has been talking to Republicans one-on-one in recent weeks, said the caucus needs to implement a communication and messaging plan as well as a strategy to grow its voting base. Republicans should have a pro-active message and state-centric plan with the caucus pressing aggressively on fundraising and upcoming redistricting in 2022, she said.

The Hixson lawmaker, who created a leadership PAC earlier this year called "Leadership Pioneers," noted it had raised $53,000 to help Republican members in this year's election. That included a $15,000 contributed from Smith, who also raised funds from a number of area residents. Hugh Maclellan of Lookout Mountain also gave $15,000. She also noted she had raised some $366,000 from 2018 until now for her own campaign committee, which also made contributions to members.

Faison made just over $22,350 in contributions from his PAC and campaign accounts. He also made a $15,000 contribution to the GOP caucus.

Majority Leader Lamberth, meanwhile, faces a caucus challenge from Rep. Andrew Farmer of Sevierville. Sexton faces no opposition.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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