On the Run

District maps illustration

On the Run

From Marsha and Phil to the stay-at-home dad vs. the stay-at-home mom, an overview of the federal and state election campaigns winding their way through Knox County.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • october 1, 2018


This is part of a package of stories on the upcoming state and federal elections. Other articles:

  • Fighting for First in the 2nd: Tim Burchett and Renee Hoyos face off in the 2nd Congressional District.
  • Third Round: It's another rematch for incumbent Eddie Smith and challenger Gloria Johnson in the state's 13th House District.
  • Blue Push in a Red County: For the first time in years, Democrats are contesting every state legislative seat on the ballot.
  • The Trouble With Turnout: Tennessee has one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country.
  • Blue Money: In Knox County's tightest race, Democratic challenger Gloria Johnson has outraised Republican Rep. Eddie Smith.
  • Early Voting Begins: Surge in resgistrations could lead to strong turnout during election.
  • ACT-ivated: An alliance of East Tennessee social activists debuts with a candidate forum.   

On Nov. 6, Tennesseans will elect a new governor and senator, and Knox County residents will also have a congressional race and an assortment of state legislative contests to sort through. We’re kicking off our coverage of those campaigns today with a quick overview of the individual contests and some of the issues at stake.

A Republican-leaning population plus carefully drawn districts add up to a big GOP edge.

Given the, ahem, carefully curated demographics of most of our legislative districts, only a few races appear competitive on paper. But they all have things to tell us about where we are as a community, and they all deserve attention. We will have deeper looks at the candidates in our local races over the course of this week.


Significant dates to watch:

  • Oct. 9: Final day to register to vote before Nov. 6 election
  • Oct. 10: Next campaign finance report deadline for state candidates (covers period from July 24-Sept. 30)
  • Oct. 15: Next quarterly campaign finance report deadline for federal candidates (covers period from July 1-Sept. 30)
  • Oct. 17-Nov. 1: Early voting in Knox County
  • Nov. 6: Election Day


(No incumbent)
Marsha Blackburn (R) vs. Phil Bredesen (D)

(No incumbent)
Karl Dean (D) vs. Bill Lee (R)

The two statewide races have attracted plenty of attention, but the Blackburn-Bredesen faceoff is the marquee fight. Polling all year has suggested it is close, and its outcome could potentially affect control of the U.S. Senate. Hence the repeated trips to Tennessee by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to rally the Republican base, including tonight's Trump visit to Johnson City.

The state’s political tilt obviously favors the GOP -- Tennesseans voted nearly 61-34 for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the tightness of the Senate race suggests both how little support Blackburn has built after 16 years in Congress, and how much residual affection the state has for the 74-year-old Bredesen, who served two terms as governor after two terms as mayor of Nashville. Bredesen won all 95 counties in his re-election bid for governor in 2006 -- but no Democrat has won statewide office since.

The contest to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam has generated few recent sparks. The primary election in August put an end to an onslaught of Trumpier-than-thou rhetoric from Republican contenders Randy Boyd and Diane Black, who finished second and third behind Lee. Lee and Dean are both running relatively optimistic campaigns built around their personal records of achievement (Lee’s in business and Dean’s as mayor of Nashville).

In a race between two can-do Baby Boomer white guys, the edge would seem to go to the Republican. That perception was borne out last week by the first Tennessee Power Poll, which asked civic and business leaders in the state’s four largest cities who they planned to vote for and who they thought would win. The cities lean Democratic, so it’s no surprise that 65 percent of those who responded said they planned to vote for Dean. But 74 percent of respondents said they think Lee will be elected.

Both races are interesting from a Knoxville perspective for a few reasons. First, there is no local name on either ballot. We are seeing a changing of the guard in the leadership of the state GOP, which for many decades was anchored in the traditionally Republican counties of East Tennessee.

For the past 50 years, the state’s Republican lineage has descended largely from former Sen. Howard Baker: Both Sen. Lamar Alexander and former Sen. Fred Thompson served under Baker in different capacities, and one of Baker’s staunchest supporters was Pilot Oil founder Jim Haslam, father of our current governor. Sen. Bob Corker, whose retirement has created the vacancy Blackburn and Bredesen are vying to fill, is also a Haslam friend and ally, and was a college roommate of Jimmy Haslam, the governor’s older brother.

There was talk of Bill Haslam running for Corker’s seat, but the governor quashed it quickly. The only heir to the Baker-Haslam mantle to run this year was Boyd, who instead of governor will now be interim president of the University of Tennessee. Jim Haslam has stepped up to serve as one of Blackburn’s campaign finance chairs, but the fiery Blackburn is far from the mold of measured conservatism that has marked East Tennessee Republicans. Compare her full-throated embrace of Trump to Corker’s periodic jabs at the president’s policies and demeanor, or to Bill Haslam’s public refusal to endorse Trump at all.

Whether Blackburn wins or loses, it is clear that the balance of power in the state GOP is shifting away from the East and toward the former Dixiecrat strongholds of Middle and West Tennessee.

The governor’s race is also of interest to city-limits Knoxville specifically because if Lee wins, he will be the first governor in 16 years who has not served as a mayor of one of Tennessee’s major cities. Despite their party difference, both Haslam and Bredesen brought municipal experience with them to the governor’s office.

The current Legislature is dominated by suburban and rural Republicans, who tend to view the Big Four metro areas as bastions of liberalism (even if they appreciate their economic impact). Bills are introduced every year to limit the powers of cities on issues ranging from land use to LGBT rights to gun control. Haslam has often been willing to defend cities’ local authority, sometimes successfully. Lee has not been talking much about cities in his campaign, focusing on rural economic development and other issues.

(No incumbent)
Tim Burchett (R) vs. Renee Hoyos (D)

The 2nd Congressional District has been held by a Republican since 1867 and by a member of the Duncan family since 1965. Besides Knox County, it covers Blount, Claiborne, Grainger and Loudon counties, and parts of Jefferson and Campbell counties. In 2016, the U.S. Census American Community Survey estimated the district had a total population of 740,182, of whom 89 percent were white, 6 percent were African-American, and 4 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Former Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has an edge in party affiliation and campaign experience over Democratic candidate Renee Hoyos, who is on leave from her longtime position as executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. Burchett has run and won seven campaigns for office. This is Hoyos’ first.

The fundraising totals they reported in July were for the primary campaign, so they don’t say much about the general election except as barometers of capacity. Burchett had raised a total of $634,912.20, and Hoyos had raised $139,267.84. We will have a detailed look at both candidates later this week.


State Senate District 5
Incumbent: Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R)
Challenger: Stuart Starr (D)

Pharmacist Randy McNally has represented this mostly Anderson County district since 1987, and he has been in the Legislature since he was elected to the state House in 1979. He was elevated to lieutenant governor and speaker of the Senate last year, after the retirement of former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. 

Knoxvillians might not think of the Oak Ridge resident McNally as one of their representatives, but because of the way the Legislature’s last redistricting sliced up the state’s Democratic urban areas, his Senate district now extends a skinny finger all the way to Beaumont.

McNally hasn’t lost an election in 40 years of running for office. This year he is facing Stuart Starr, who made an unsuccessful bid in 2016 against U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan and whose primary issue is the legalization of medical marijuana. His campaign website biography notes, “I'll need a job after the election if I don't win.”

State Senate District 7
Incumbent: Richard Briggs (R)
Challenger: Jamie Ballinger (D)

Briggs, a surgeon and former Knox County commissioner, is finishing his first term in the state Senate. In 2014, he defeated incumbent and notorious loudmouth Stacey Campfield in the Republican primary, and then easily won the general election against Democrat Cheri Siler. This year he is facing Jamie Ballinger, a first-time candidate who is an attorney for powerhouse law firm Baker Donelson.

The 7th Senate District covers much of West and North Knoxville, albeit in an odd buttonhook formation that looks like a sideways question mark. Its Republican majority is assured by its expansive West and Northwest Knox reaches, but it includes dense urban neighborhoods including Fort Sanders, Mechanicsville, downtown Knoxville and Ballinger’s own 4th and Gill.


State House District 13
Incumbent: Eddie Smith (R)
Challenger: Gloria Johnson (D)

This is the third time Smith and Johnson have run for the seat. Smith defeated Johnson, the incumbent, by a razor-thin margin in 2014, and narrowly fended off her challenge in 2016. Education is the theme of this race, with Smith touting his record on passing education-related legislation and Johnson, a retired teacher and former chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, running on her expertise in the field.

The 13th House District is one of Knox County’s most diverse, snaking from the area around Knoxville Center Mall through North Knoxville to Bearden and Sequoyah Hills before jumping the Tennessee River to take in a big chunk of South Knox County. As the previous Smith-Johnson bouts have shown, the district is fairly evenly divided between the two major parties.

House District 14
Incumbent: Jason Zachary (R)
Challenger: Justin Davis (D)

Zachary is running for re-election to his second full term representing the West Knox suburbs. He won the seat in 2015 when incumbent Ryan Haynes stepped down in the middle of a term to head the state Republican Party. (Haynes subsequently departed that job for the maybe less stressful position of chief lobbyist for Tennessee wine and liquor wholesalers.) Zachary was easily elected again in 2016. Davis, who grew up in Knoxville and has a master’s degree in political science, is a political newcomer.

The district, which includes Farragut, Concord and other sections of Southwest Knox County, is reliably Republican. Zachary garnered 73 percent of the the vote in his 2016 victory over Democrat Scott Hacker.

House District 15
Incumbent: Rick Staples (D)
Challenger: None

Staples, who won the seat in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote over Pete Drew, is unopposed for re-election. (That may be why his campaign website still says it's a "work in progress.") The 15th District includes East Knoxville, Downtown, Mechanicsville, the University of Tennessee, Vestal and other South Knoxville city neighborhoods, and traditionally is a Democratic stronghold.

Staples is currently the only Democratic member of the Knox County legislative delegation and the only African-American. The seat was held for 28 years by Rep. Joe Armstrong, but Armstrong’s conviction for federal tax fraud knocked him off the 2016 ballot, and Staples was named in his place by the Knox County Democratic Party.

House District 16
Incumbent: Bill Dunn (R)
Challenger: Kate Trudell (D)

Republican Bill Dunn has represented the 16th District since 1994, and hasn’t faced opposition in the general election since 2012, when he trampled his opponent with 85 percent of the vote. His opponent this time, Trudell, has worked in the nonprofit sector is emphasizing service to constituents over party.

The reliably Republican 16th District runs from Fountain City to Powell, and includes urban, suburban and rural areas. Dunn is a conservative Catholic, and his wife, Stacy, is a longtime officer in the anti-abortion group Tennessee Right to Life.

House District 18
Incumbent: Martin Daniel (R)
Challenger: Greg Mackay (D)

Daniel, who owns an outdoor advertising company, is winding up his second term in the state Legislature as a pro-business, small-government Republican. He narrowly defeated incumbent Steve Hall in the 2014 GOP primary and gained notoriety for an on-air altercation with Hall during the 2016 primary.

Mackay, who served as Knox County Election Administrator for years and then worked for Mayor Madeline Rogero, has high name recognition and a strong network of supporters.

The Republican-leaning 18th House District lies on either side of Interstate 40 in West Knoxville. It includes the area around West Town Mall and neighborhoods to the north and south.

House District 19
(No incumbent)
Edward Nelson (D) vs. Michelle Westover (Independent) vs. Dave Wright (R)

Wright is in his second term on Knox County Commission, where he represents the 8th District and has served as chairman. He’s counting on that record of public service and the connections he’s made to afford him a seamless transition to the state Legislature. Nelson, a U.S. Navy veteran, is a student at the University of Tennessee. Westover, who lives in Strawberry Plains, is focusing on rural issues.

The 19th District is a massive, mostly rural area of Knox County. It stretches from north of Halls on the Union County border, through all of East Knox County to South Knox County on the Sevier County border. Republican Harry Brooks, who is retiring, represented the district for 16 years.

House District 89
(No incumbent)
Justin Lafferty (R) vs. Coleen Martinez (D)

Lafferty, who describes himself as a stay-at-home dad, pulled off a political stunner by defeating former state Sen. Stacey Campfield and former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison in a five-person race for the Republican nomination. Lafferty’s website positions him as a down-the-line conservative on issues ranging from taxes to guns to illegal immigration. Martinez is a stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree in health education and behavior. She’s focused on education, health care and gun safety.

The 89th District covers fast-growing Northwest Knox County. Republican Roger Kane has represented the GOP-leaning district since 2012 but didn’t run this year so he could challenge Sherry Witt in the Republican primary for the open Knox County Clerk seat -- unsuccessfully, it turned out. Kane was recently hired as education liaison by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.