A Partisan Flavor

A Partisan Flavor

In Knoxville's officially nonpartisan election, GOP-backed Council candidates are running as a unified slate in hopes of unseating the incumbents in the Democratic-leaning city.

by scott barker • September 3, 2021

After Tuesday’s primary, this year’s city election is shaping up to feature the most overtly partisan contests in memory.

In the primary, incumbents took 29 precincts while challengers finished first in just nine.

The five incumbent City Council members, all of whom can be described as center-left Democrats, came in first in their district primaries. Coming in second in each race were five Republicans. The progressive City Council Movement was shut out in the primaries.

Voters in the primary could only vote in their district races, but all city voters can vote in every contest in the general election. The arrangement forces the top two finishers in each district primary to appeal to voters across Knoxville to win a Council seat.

Though the general election ballot will not identify candidates by party affiliation, the Republicans are running as a unified ticket, while the incumbents are taking a more independent approach that’s been traditional in city elections.

A look at the primary results and the recent voting history in the city indicates that the Republican challengers will have a tough time unseating the incumbents. GOP leaders, however, say they have a winning strategy as the battlegrounds shift from individual districts to the city as a whole.

“I can promise you the Knox County Republican Party will not hold back going into November,” party Chair Daniel Herrera said at the GOP’s post-election get-together on Tuesday.

Overall, the incumbents carried 29 precincts, while the Republican challengers took only nine (one was a tie and no one voted at two University of Tennessee locations). Four of the GOP-leaning precincts were in one district. Incumbents garnered a combined 5,514 votes (55.2 percent) to 3,440 (34.4 percent) for the Republican challengers, with the three City Council Movement candidates receiving 1,040 votes (10.4 percent).

“I think tonight's results tell us that people want a progressive city that has recreational opportunities, that's bringing jobs, that’s keeping our young graduates here,” 4th District Councilwoman Lauren Rider said in an interview on election night.

The races are individual contests, however. 

On Tuesday, incumbents Tommy Smith (1st District) and Andrew Roberto (2nd District) won every precinct in their respective races. Smith finished ahead of Republican Elizabeth Murphy and City Council Movement candidate David Hayes. Roberto easily defeated Kim Smith.

In the 6th District, incumbent Gwen McKenzie won seven precincts, compared to three for Republican Garrett Holt and none for City Council Movement candidate Deidra Harper. She wound up with 52.2 percent of the vote to Holt’s 25.2 percent and Harper’s 22.6 percent.

The 6th District has the largest concentration of Black voters in the city. McKenzie handily won in the predominantly African-American precincts in East Knoxville. She also carried downtown. Harper, who like McKenzie is African-American, gathered most of her votes in those same precincts. Holt, who is white, won three predominantly white precincts in the western edge of the district.

Incumbent Seema Singh won six of eight precincts in the 3rd District in a relatively close contest with Nick Ciparro. She received 53.2 percent of the vote to Ciparro’s 46.8 percent.

In 2017, when she ran as a City Council Movement candidate, Singh came in second in the primary — the Northwest Knoxville district is the most conservative sector of the city — but won in the citywide general election. She suggested that the results indicate a shift among her constituents. 

“The district showed itself to be a progressive community that wants to raise all of us,” she said. “It’s changing.”

In the highly competitive 4th District, incumbent Lauren Rider and Republican challenger Jim Klonaris each won four precincts. Rider outpolled Klonaris, however, 48.3 percent to 42.1 percent. Jen McMahon, the City Council Movement candidate, received 9.7 percent of the vote and did not capture a precinct.

Rider trounced Klonaris in their home precinct — she lives in Old North Knoxville and he is a 4th and Gill resident — where she amassed three out of every four ballots cast. She also won in Belle Morris, the center of Fountain City and Holston Hills. Klonaris took the northernmost precincts of Fountain City and the Washington Pike corridor.

Knox County is reliably red, with all countywide officeholders and a majority of County Commissioners being Republican, but the city of Knoxville has become a blue bastion in recent years. 

Last year, city voters in the presidential race overwhelmingly voted for Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump. Trump won only 10 of 46 precincts inside the city limits. A majority on City Council are Democrats, as are Mayor Indya Kincannon and former Mayor Madeline Rogero.

The progressive voters attracted to the City Council Movement candidates are more ideologically aligned with the incumbents, though the organization’s leadership has criticized them for not making fundamental changes to city government. If they show up and vote for the incumbents, the road becomes tougher for the challengers.

Herrera, the Republican Party chair, has made obtaining a majority on City Council a priority for the GOP and acknowledged the challenge in an election-night interview. He said the key is to get Republicans who don’t normally vote in city elections to go to the polls.

“The GOP has written off the city elections for a long time,” he said, explaining that the party will support the challengers with phone banks, mailers and other get-out-the-vote strategies.

Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears said the incumbents aren’t “partisan puppets” and enjoy a broad range of support that includes Republicans, independents and Democrats. He said the party won’t formally endorse them, but will work to counteract the Republicans’ message.

“We won’t let the GOP’s shady and extremist campaigns go unchallenged,” Shears said.

The campaigns could get rough. The Republican Party funded a mailer sent out during early voting attempting to paint the 1st District’s Smith as a radical leftist, and Herrera said to expect more of the same in the runup to the general election. “We’re planning to do more of those,” he said

Rider, for one, said she’s ready. “We have to triple down now and hit the whole city,” she told her supporters on primary election night. “And they’re going to come at me swinging, OK? The nasty postcards are coming.”