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Tennessee primary elections kick off as Republicans aim to flip House seat historically held by Democrats

Several primary elections are taking place across Tennessee on Thursday as Republicans aim to flip a House seat, which has been historically represented by a Democrat, after the state redrew its congressional map.

Also on the ballot Thursday are the nominations for Tennessee governor. Incumbent GOP Gov. Bill Lee, who has served as the state’s 50th governor since 2019, is running unopposed in the Republican gubernatorial primary election.

While there has not been a Democrat elected to statewide office in nearly 15 years, three candidates are facing off against one another in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race for a chance to lead the state. Those candidates are physician Jason Martin, Memphis council member JB Smiley Jr., and community advocate Carnita Atwater.

Going into Thursday’s election, fundraising totals for candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary varied immensely. Martin had raised almost $650,000, Smiley had raised a little more than $200,000, and Atwater raised a little under $4,000.


Primary races taking place in Tennessee to represent the state in Congress come after a GOP-dominated assembly split up left-leaning Nashville into three congressional districts, potentially making it possible to flip the seat from Democrat to Republican.

Following the split, incumbent Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who has represented the state’s 5th Congressional District since 2003, announced he would not seek re-election because he believed there was no path for him to win.

There are now nine GOP candidates in the race to represent the 5th District, including Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead, Geni Batchelor, Natisha Brooks, Jeff Beierlein, and write-in candidate Robby Starbuck.


Rep. Jim Cooper speaks at the Recording Academy District Advocate Day at Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum on Oct. 19, 2017 in Nashville.

State Sen. Heidi Campbell of Nashville is the only candidate running in the Democratic primary.

Five GOP lawmakers from Tennessee’s nine-member congressional delegation are running unopposed in the primary: 1st District Rep. Diana Harshbarger, 2nd District Rep. Tim Burchett, 4th District Rep. Scott DesJarlais, 6th District Rep. John Rose, and 7th District Rep. Mark Green.

Incumbent Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who has represented the state’s 9th Congressional District since 2007, along with 8th District GOP Rep. David Kustoff and 3rd District GOP Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, face opponents in the primary.

Kustoff’s challengers include business owner Danny Bridger Jr., Air Force veteran Dean Clouse, and Marine Corps veteran Bob Hendry. Fleischmann is facing a challenge from Navy veteran Sandy Casey.


From left, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. David Kustoff, R-Tenn.

In the 7th District, Green is facing a long-shot challenge from far-left Democrat candidate Odessa Kelly, who is running unopposed in her primary.

Kelly is being supported by the Justice Democrats, a left-wing organization backed by “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and dedicated to electing progressive Democrats to Congress. Kelly’s campaign has focused on economic inequality, criminal justice reform, “Medicare-for-All,” support for the Green New Deal, and calling for more restrictive gun control laws. Some suggest she could be the newest member of the “Squad” should she pull off an unlikely victory in the deep red district.

In the state’s Republican-supermajority legislature, all of Tennessee’s 99 state House seats are up for election this year. There are 15 open seats, with the majority of them held by Republicans. Twenty-one seats feature contested Republican primaries and nine include contested Democratic primaries.

Some openings include the seat of disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada, who was ousted from the top position in 2019 due to a series of scandals. Former GOP state Rep. Robin Smith resigned earlier this year after facing federal wire charges that allege she ran a political consulting kickback scheme with Casada and his former chief of staff, neither of whom have been charged to date.

State Rep. David Byrd also won’t seek re-election. The Republican has faced allegations by three women of sexual misconduct three decades ago when he was a high school teacher and their basketball coach. He was never charged, but two of the women accused Byrd of inappropriately touching them, and the third said Byrd tried to.

Byrd initially announced he would retire in 2020, but reversed course by arguing that it was important to have an experienced lawmaker during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee

Notably, long-serving state Rep. John Mark Windle has filed to run as an independent after previously being a registered Democrat for almost three decades.

In the Senate, 17 of 33 seats are on the ballot, four with contested GOP primaries and two with contested Democratic races. Three departing senators leave open seats: Republicans Brian Kelsey and Mike Bell, and Democrat Brenda Gilmore. Kelsey is facing a federal indictment on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws during his failed 2016 congressional campaign.

All five seats on Tennessee’s Supreme Court are up for an eight-year retention election in the August primary. The justices – Jeff Bivins, Sarah Campbell, Sharon Lee, Holly Kirby and Roger Page – are expected to clear the vote.

Polls will close in Tennessee at 7 p.m. CT.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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