NASHVILLE — Tennessee and Georgia's 2016 political campaign season begins with an early rush — just 61 days from New Year's Day — with voters here and other Southern states hoping to play key roles in deciding the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.
If you haven't already marked it on your calendar, check it now: March 1 is "Super Tuesday."
That's when Republican and Democratic voters in 12 states, including Tennessee and Georgia, will go to the polls and vote for party nominees for president. Seven of the states are in the South, part of a subset dubbed the "SEC primary" because all have college sports teams in the Southeastern Conference.
With the GOP contest now at a boiling point between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — Hillary Clinton currently leads the much smaller Democratic field — Southern states could prove pivotal in shaping the contests coming out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"Georgia and Tennessee are both part of that SEC primary," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. GOP candidates are frequent visitors in both states. Cruz came to Chattanooga in August and was back in Tennessee last week hitting multiple cities with appeals to evangelical voters.
"Which means it's working the way it's supposed to," Bullock said. "Get candidates in and spend some time. See them personal and close."
The latest public Tennessee poll, released by Vanderbilt University earlier in December, gave Trump a 29 percent plurality, with Ben Carson at 24 percent, Ted Cruz at 14 percent and Marco Rubio at 12 percent. Jeb Bush had 6 percent support.
But pollsters note Carson's support began fading shortly after that.
Political junkies better enjoy the presidential primaries, though, because things will likely settle down substantially across a good part of the Volunteer State and possibly Georgia until the fall presidential race.
Still, state and local contests in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia could stir up party primaries and general election contests.
Neither Tennessee nor Georgia have a governor's race this year. Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, aren't up this cycle either, but Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson has to run.
Whether and what kind of challenge he'll face is uncertain. The names of potential Democratic challengers keep being floated, only to see those named remove themselves from the list.
"I still think Isakson is the most popular politician in the state," said Bullock, adding that a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease "doesn't seem to have slowed him down."
Any challenger for Fleischmann?
With state Sen. Bo Watson confirming he won't challenge U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional seat, the Republican primary, at least, promises to be a dull affair.
That leaves Fleischmann, who faced tough primaries in each of his three previous campaigns, with a much easier path for the first times. The district leans decidedly Republican and Fleischmann has faced token Democratic opposition in general elections.
It's unclear what Democrat, if any, will step forward. The 3rd District includes Hamilton County and part of Bradley County in the south and Anderson County and Oak Ridge in the north.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee said some Democrats are weighing a race but will have to move quickly come January.
The primary election for Tennessee state and congressional contests is Aug. 4.
4th District battle
Tennessee's sprawling 4th Congressional District may be looking at another major slugfest in the GOP primary.
Newcomer Grant Starrett is challenging U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, whose family values stances were upended in 2012 by revelations from 2000 divorce documents showing the South Pittsburg physician had urged one former patient to get an abortion and gone along with his former wife's two abortions.
The conservative DesJarlais, who told voters his life had changed since he remarried and became more religious, scraped through his 2014 GOP primary with state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, by just 38 votes.
Starrett is a Murfreesboro attorney who is running to DesJarlais' right. Starrett has injected some $226,000 into his campaign and had a war chest of $693,510 as of Sept. 30. DesJarlais reported $208,186 cash on hand.
DesJarlais calls the 27-year-old Starrett a "trust-fund kid" whose personal wealth comes from his parents. Starrett hasn't hit DesJarlais about his past but instead has focused on attacking the congressman's votes.
"It's an interesting tactic to run against DesJarlais from the right," said Pat Nolan, a long-time political analyst and host of Nashville TV station WTVF's weekly political talk show. "Everyone who's run against him — and he's had primary opposition — all tried running from center or slightly to the left.
"Will that work?" Nolan asked. "I don't know. [Starrett] hasn't talked much about the personal life issues that have been at the core of [DesJarlais'] other races."
Tennessee Senate District 10
Chattanooga and Tennessee Democrats say they will run a candidate against state Sen. Todd Gardenhire in the 10th Senatorial District.
Democrats' ire was raised in the 2015 legislative session when the Chattanooga Republican twice voted against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Medicaid expansion proposal, dubbed Insure Tennessee.
It didn't help when Gardenhire used vulgar language to an East Ridge protester who harangued him over his vote and the fact that Gardenhire had state-subsidized health insurance as a legislator.
Gardenhire says he voted against the plan in part because Haslam never could answer his questions over finances and other issues.
In a video of the confrontation, Gardenhire can be heard calling the protester a crude name. The senator said what he actually told the man was "I gave it up, a———," meaning he had asked to be dropped from the state health plan.
"This is a man who calls one of his constituents a vulgar name and refused to vote for Insure Tennessee," said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini.
Mancini said Democrats will have a "credible candidate," but declined to get into specifics.
Chattanooga Councilman Chris Anderson recently said he would not run for the seat. Two other names being floated by Democrats are Nick Wilkinson, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's deputy administrator for economic development, and Carl Landsden Jr., son of a former top union leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Senate Republicans, who hold a supermajority, say they'll have plenty of money to back Gardenhire. And Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes said the state GOP will as well.
"Senator Gardenhire's going to be fine," Haynes said. "We actually find it comical they keep talking about all these strong candidates they have. That must be a new secret strategy they have."
The state Senate primary election is Aug. 4 and the general election is Nov. 8.
Other regional races
When Hamilton County voters go to the polls March 1 to vote for presidential nominees, they'll also find a pair of local races on the ballot.
Three Republican attorneys are running for the Division II judgeship in Hamilton County Criminal Court. The list includes incumbent Tom Greenholtz, whom Haslam appointed in September when Judge Rebecca Stern retired. Mike Little, with the public defender's office, and Boyd Patterson, a prosecutor with the district attorney's office, are running as well.
Early voting begins Feb. 10; the primary is March 1. Since no Democrat qualified, unless there is an independent candidate whoever wins the primary wins the seat.
Also on the March 1 ballot is the Republican contest to succeed longtime Property Assessor Bill Bennett, who is not seeking reelection.
Hamilton County Commissioner Marty Haynes, current assessor's office employee Randy Johnston and former employee Sterling Jetton are seeking the Republican nomination. The winner will face Democrat Mark Siedlecki.
County general and Tennessee state primary elections are Aug. 4.
Across the border in Georgia, long-time Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell, a Republican, faces Shannon Whitfield, a Chickamauga city councilman, in the May 24 GOP primary. Lonnie Henderson II of LaFayette says he intends to run as well but hasn't decided whether to run as a Republican or Democrat.
Georgia's state and local primary elections are May 24 with a July 26 runoff date if needed. The general election is Nov. 8.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter @AndySher1.