Election 2020: 2nd U.S. House District
Rep. Tim Burchett and Renee Hoyos face each other for the second time in as many elections to represent the Knoxville area in Congress.
It’s not exactly Ali v. Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” but this year’s contest for the 2nd U.S. House seat is a rematch of the 2018 race between Republican incumbent Tim Burchett and Democrat Renee Hoyos.
The district centered on Knoxville has been in Republican hands since before the Civil War.
Burchett won the first match by 33 percentage points, but Hoyos’ showing was the best by a Democrat in the district in years. Longtime U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. routinely snared 70 percent or more of the vote in his campaigns; in 2018, Burchett received 66 percent to Hoyos’ 33 percent.
Hoyos said recently that her internal polling shows a tighter race this time around. Burchett dismissed internal polling because questions can be worded to lead to certain responses.
Tennessee isn’t a battleground state on the presidential level. President Donald Trump has a comfortable 13.4 percentage point lead over former Vice President Joe Biden — 54.5 percent to 41.1 percent — in the average of poll results from Tennessee at the website FiveThirtyEight. But that’s down from his margin in 2016, when he won Tennessee with 60.7 percent of the vote.
Burchett is a veteran politician who has served in the state Legislature and was a two-term Knox County mayor before running for Congress. Hoyos has never held public office, and the 2018 race was her first foray into electoral politics.
Hoyos closed the fundraising gap, at least through the primary. In 2018, Burchett outraised her by a 3 to 1 margin. The incumbent enjoyed a smaller but still considerable advantage for the reporting period ending July 17, the most recent disclosure documents available, with $431,307 on hand compared to Hoyos’ balance of $202,534. The third quarter financial disclosure forms are due on Thursday, but Burchett sent out a news release Monday saying he’d raised $397,000 during the reporting period.
The 2nd District is considered one of the safest in Congress for Republicans. The GOP has controlled the seat since then Rep. Horace Maynard switched parties in 1857, four years before the Civil War.
East Tennessee was staunchly pro-Union during the war and has remained a GOP stronghold from the party of Lincoln to the party of Reagan to the party of Trump.
The 2nd District includes a broad spectrum of rural, suburban and urban areas, from the rugged Upper Cumberland region to towns like Maryville and Lenoir City to the streets of downtown Knoxville, which lies at the heart of the district. The 2nd District includes Knox, Blount, Loudon, Grainer and Claiborne counties, plus portions of Jefferson and Campbell counties.
Hoyos said in an interview that people are tired of having the same representation they’ve had for decades. She noted that Democrats have been gaining a larger share of the district’s vote since 2012.
“This district wants to flip and it just needs somebody to give it a big push,” she said. “We’re not as partisan as everyone thinks we are. People are open to hear about down-ballot candidates.”
The daughter of a Mexican father and American mother, Hoyos grew up in California and earned master’s degrees in avian science and agriculture from the University of California at Davis. After college, she worked as a special assistant to the commissioner of the California Natural Resources Agency. She moved to Knoxville in 2003 to take a job as executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.
TCWN is a nonprofit organization formed in 2000 to advocate for the protection of water resources statewide. One of the organization’s signature wins under Hoyos’ leadership was forcing a consent decree that required the Knoxville Utilities Board to spend half a billion dollars to refurbish its antiquated and deteriorating sewer system, which in the early 2000s dumped raw sewage into the city’s streets every time it rained.
Hoyos proved herself to be a tough advocate who understands how government agencies work and how to negotiate with developers, bureaucrats and elected officials.
Hoyos has said she was spurred to run for office after being stunned by Donald Trump’s triumph in the 2016 presidential election. She got renewed energy from watching the White House’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hoyos said Trump’s response resembles that of a Third World country. “I give the federal response a failing grade, she said. “We need to get the virus under control. We need to get a vaccine developed and distributed. We need to innovate so people can pay their bills and businesses have operating capital.”
She said preserving the Affordable Care Act, with its protections for people with pre-existing conditions, is more important than ever. “There have been 7.7 million diagnosed [with COVID-19], which means 7.7 million people have pre-existing conditions.”
Hoyos criticized Burchett for voting against funding free COVID-19 testing and money for opioid addiction treatment.
“Tim’s a funny guy, well-loved, but he’s not the man for now,” she said. “My concern is the people of East Tennessee. I want the people of East Tennessee to go to the doctor without it costing the farm.”
As might be expected with her background, Hoyos advocates greater protections for the nation’s streams, rivers and natural resources. She also wants to increase the minimum wage and lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Hoyos said strengthening public education is important for the district’s next generation and said federal dollars that support education should not be diluted. She also said she supports and would reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides funding for vocational training programs.
Hoyos said agriculture still dominates the district’s rural areas, and the federal government must continue programs that support efficient and productive farming. She said she doesn’t want trade disputes to hurt local farmers.
If elected, Hoyos would probably be in the majority party of the House of Representatives, which would put her in the thick of crafting legislation that would have a chance of becoming law. She said she wouldn’t squander the opportunity.
“My values are to work hard to give people an opportunity to have a good life,” she said. “We have big issues to solve, and I have the experience and capacity to solve them.”
When asked about his first term in Congress in a recent interview, Burchett, who has been in elective office for the past 26 years, adopted a world-weary tone: “The only surprise I had is that I wasn’t surprised,” he said.
Burchett said he’s avoided being disappointed by his status as a freshman lawmaker in the minority party. “For me, it’s not difficult because I can count,” he said.
Still, he’s managed to get a couple of bills out of the House for Senate consideration.
One, the Microloan Transparency and Accountability Act, was co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey and aims to make it easier for small businesses to obtain federal loans. “A small loan to them makes the difference between staying open and closing the doors,” Burchett said.
Another bill, co-sponsored with Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, would provide nonviolent felons with small business counseling and training services to help prepare them to start their own small business after prison. “You can train them to get a job or build more prison space — bottom line,” he said.
Burchett has cultivated the image of a folksy good ol’ boy, with an enthusiastic interest in Bigfoot and his hobby of metal detecting. His most famous bill as a state Legislature was the “Roadkill Bill,” which legalized the consumption of animals killed in collisions with vehicles.
But while unconventional in some ways, he’s a serious fiscal conservative. As county mayor he beat back an effort to raise property taxes to raise more funds for the Knox County Schools.
The son of a former Knoxville school board chairman who also served as a University of Tennessee dean, Burchett graduated from Bearden High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee.
He ran a mulch business, then ran successfully for the state House of Representatives in 1994. He moved on to the state Senate, then served two terms as county mayor from 2010 to 2018.
He ran for Congress when Duncan announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2018, but the path wasn’t easy. Though Burchett can generally count on the support of the Republican establishment, the Duncan family threw its weight behind former state Rep. Jimmy Matlock in the GOP primary. Burchett defeated Matlock and went on to victory in the general election over Hoyos.
Burchett said the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen short. “Could we have done better? Absolutely. But nobody knew before it hit how bad it would be.”
He said compromise will be needed to improve the healthcare system, which he described as the best in the world but in need of some “tinkering.” Protecting people with pre-existing conditions is a must, he said.
Burchett also said the public has spoken loud and clear that environmental protection is important, but he wants to find conservative, private-sector solutions that create jobs while protecting natural resources.
As a member of the minority party in the House, Burchett knows that he must establish relationships with Democrats. He counts several as his friends, including progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been vilified by Trump and other Republicans. “I’m closest actually to AOC,” he said. “She’s a very delightful person.”
He said he’s been warned that fraternizing with Democrats might be bad for his career, but Burchett said that’s why the system is broken. “I refuse to fall into that trap,” he said.
According to Burchett, who has never lost an election, reaching across the aisle doesn’t equal abandoning principles.
“I keep my word,” he said. “I haven’t changed one bit. I don’t play the game, but I’m successful.”