Primary 2022: State House District 18
In a spirited contest, a City Council member and a Republican Party officer are competing for the GOP nomination.
The Republican primary in the 18th Tennessee House District pits a lifelong member of the GOP establishment against a converted Democrat who has risen to a leadership position in the party.
The campaign for the GOP nomination has been a rough-and-tumble affair.
Knoxville City Councilwoman Janet Testerman, whose late father twice served as the city’s mayor, is taking on Elaine Davis, who is vice chair of the Knox County Republican Party (on leave of absence during the campaign). They are vying to succeed Eddie Mannis, a relatively moderate Republican who opted not to run after only one term in Nashville.
After last year’s redistricting, the 18th is the most oddly shaped of Knox County’s state House districts. Its territory runs west from Cumberland Estates through Amherst to the Cedar Bluff/Pellissippi Parkway area, then curls to the east through Rocky Hill, Westmoreland and Sequoyah Hills before crossing the river to encompass a good chunk of South Knox County. The northern and southern prongs of its western sector are divided by the newly created 90th District along Kingston Pike.
The campaign has been a rough-and-tumble affair so far, with both candidates claiming to be the more representative Republican and attacking the other’s GOP bona fides.
Testerman’s campaign has labeled Davis a “fake conservative” desperate to win an election after four failed attempts since 2006. Davis, on the other hand, has paid for at least one push poll critical of her opponent’s voting record on City Council.
Relying on a network of mainstay Republican donors, Testerman has a commanding lead in fundraising. She raised $115,358 during the quarter ending June 30 and had $96,657 on hand for the final push to primary Election Day on Aug. 4. Davis raised $36,495 during the second quarter and had $30,903 left as of June 30.
The winner will move on to face educator Gregory Kaplan, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary. We will profile him and his campaign before the November general election.
Davis has been active in local politics for nearly two decades, though election to public office has proven to be elusive so far.
She initially planned to run against Mannis, considered by many to lack conservative credentials. He survived two challenges to his status as a bona fide Republican in 2018. Some, like Davis, thought he deviated from GOP principles while in the Legislature.
“After redistricting changed my residency to the 18th District, I decided to run against Eddie Mannis because I disagreed with many of his votes in the state Legislature including allowing boys to compete in girls' sports, allowing obscene materials in school libraries, and the teaching of critical race theory to minors in public schools,” she said, referring to two controversial bills on transgender student athletes and K-12 curriculums. Mannis opposed both bills.
When Mannis announced his decision not to run and Testerman promptly jumped in the race, Davis took the altered landscape in stride.
“My petition to run was filed months prior to Janet's announcement that she was going to run, so I continued moving my campaign forward to be the Republican nominee for the 18th,” she said in emailed responses to questions. (She declined an in-person interview.)
Davis grew up in Farragut and now lives in South Knox County. A University of Tennessee graduate, she has been married for 26 years and has three adult children. Davis has worked at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and as a substitute teacher, served as a caregiver to her parents before their passing, and has been the host of a local conservative talk-radio program.
Davis became an advocate for one of her sons, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, when he was a child in Knox County Schools. Her involvement led to her working with state Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge — now the state’s lieutenant governor — on a bill to allow trained volunteers to test blood sugar and administer insulin to students at school if a nurse wasn’t available.
Davis began her political career in earnest when she ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a County Commission seat in 2006, but she was appointed to a Commission seat two years later in the aftermath of the Black Wednesday scandal. Her term was brief — later in 2008 she lost her chance for a full term in the Democratic primary.
After President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and in the midst of the Great Recession, Davis switched parties. An invalid signature on her qualifying petition cost her the chance to run for Commission as a Republican in 2010. She subsequently lost a bid for school board in 2012 and a race against Democrat Gloria Johnson for the 13th District House seat in 2020.
“I was raised in a Christian conservative family who were Democrats,” she said when asked about the reason for the change. “That was the party I was raised in and the same is true for many in Tennessee. But in the 2000s I had concerns about the direction of the party, and in 2008 it solidified those concerns. Since August of 2008, I have only voted in Republican primaries. I see myself as a Ronald Reagan Republican, a conservative who also changed parties.”
Testerman has seized on Davis’ Democratic past to criticize her as an inauthentic conservative, emphasizing her runs for office before her political conversion.
“Elaine Davis has no job and is desperate to get elected to political office,” a recent mailer from Testerman’s campaign alleges. “She was once appointed to the Knox County Commission as a Democrat and was immediately kicked out of office by the voters.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Davis, whose campaign has engaged in negative push polling, said Testerman’s attacks have been of a personal nature and not related to her voting record while serving on County Commission or as an appointed member of the Knox County Ethics Committee.
“Our campaign asked questions about her voting record, whereas her campaign asked personal questions about me,” she said. “Our campaign is talking about her voting record.”
Davis’ stance on many issues are typical of Tennessee Republicans — she has said she won’t raise taxes, is pro-business and anti-abortion, and supports the right to bear arms.
When asked about her priorities, however, she discusses issues that are more local in nature.
“Knoxville has a serious public safety and infrastructure problem that needs to be addressed and more financial support from the state needs to happen,” she said.
Addressing the staffing shortages plaguing the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Knoxville Police Department, Davis said the Legislature can provide funding to help attract more officers.
Investing in infrastructure, especially in the 18th District, is critical, she said, noting the need to catch up with development and build safer roads.
“Chapman Highway and the Northshore corridor are two problems,” Davis said. “Landmark subdivision in my district does not even have fire hydrants, that is a problem. The state can play a part by making sure more money is prioritized for local communities to invest in infrastructure.”
On her campaign website, Davis touts the support she has from the National Rifle Association, the Tennessee Firearms Association and Tennessee Right to Life.
Prominent financial supporters include state Sen. Frank Niceley, former state Reps. Martin Daniel and Bill Dunn, and developers Victor Jernigan and Tim Graham.
Davis said she is the best candidate to represent Republican Party values in the 18th District.
“I think it is important that residents have an elected official who is accessible, willing to listen, and they can trust to do what they say,” she said. “We have too many politicians who campaign as one person but while in office vote another way.”
Testerman was born into a political family — her father, Kyle Testerman, was the mayor of Knoxville from 1972-1976 and 1984-1987 — but she didn’t go into politics herself until 2016, when she ran for County Commission. She finished second in a three-way race in the 4th District Republican primary. That was followed by a successful run for an at-large City Council seat in 2019.
She didn’t consider running for the 18th District seat unil Mannis decided not to seek reelection.
“I believe when opportunities present themselves, you’ve got to pay attention,” she said recently over coffee at K Brew in North Knoxville. “We need good stewards in Nashville, and I’ve seen how state legislation trickles down and I want to make sure we have someone there to protect the interests of Knoxville.”
City Council seats are officially nonpartisan, but Testerman said the switch to the overtly partisan world of state politics won’t change her approach to issues.
“It’s no secret I’ve been a lifelong Republican,” she said. “On a city level, on a local level, 95 percent-plus of the things you vote on are nonpartisan issues. I look at ‘R’ as being for relationships, and I’ve tried to build relationships and listen to the needs of our residents.”
A Sequoyah Hills resident, Testerman is married to businessman Joey Creswell and has two step-daughters. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University and a master’s from American University, both in communications.
Testerman has spent most of her adult life in the business and nonprofit realms as owner of a catering business, as a communications executive and now as executive director of Young-Williams Animal Center. She said she would bring that experience to bear in Nashville.
“I've been a small business owner and a huge advocate for small businesses, helping them expand and create opportunities,” she said. “There are a lot of taxes right now leveraged disproportionately against small businesses. And how do we look at that in some type of potential tax reform that’s fair.”
As a Council member, Testerman voted against the property tax rate increase proposed this year by Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and wants to build on the positive fiscal momentum that she said the Republican legislative majority has established.
“We are living in the greatest state in the country, the most fiscally sound state,” she said. “You don’t get there by accident.”
Some of her Council votes have come under fire from Davis. A push poll sent to 18th District voters last week by one of Davis’ campaign vendors, Energy Media, asked opinions on three particular votes using misleading language — the creation of the African American Equity Restoration Task Force, a zoning variance for Planned Parenthood’s Knoxville clinic and a nonbinding resolution against Tennessee’s permitless carry firearms law.
“It’s all lies and misinformation,” Testerman said of the poll.
She pointed out that Council did not vote for “reparations” and indeed did not allocate “a single dime in taxpayer money” to the Equity Restoration Task Force. She said her vote on the Planned Parenthood matter was a zoning issue addressing traffic safety. A member of the NRA and a gun owner, Testerman said her vote urging legislators to vote against the permitless carry bill reflected the opposition of many Tennessee law enforcement agencies.
“Anything that makes their job harder, I’m not going to support,” she said.
Another issue that affects Knoxville and Knox County that Testerman wants to tackle is funding for mental health services. She said he was proud of Gov. Bill Lee and the Legislature for allocating funds for the city-county acute care and behavioral health center planned for the former St. Mary’s Hospital campus in North Knoxville.
“I equate mental health with cancer — if you haven't been impacted by it, you have a friend or family member who has,” she said.
Education is another priority for Testerman, who asserted that leaders have failed Tennessee children on many levels. The state should provide more alternatives, she said.
“How do we create better environments for (students) to succeed?” she asked. “It's not one-size-fits-all when it comes to education.”
Testerman is on board with is the state’s voucher program, which now will go into effect in Davidson and Shelby counties following a judge’s order earlier this week.
“I don't think children should be relegated to a ZIP Code, so I do believe in choice," she said. "That can look very different in different ways.”
Testerman would also like to see the Legislature consider exemptions to the abortion ban that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
“It’s a complex issue and it’s certainly not black and white,” she said. “I'm a cancer survivor and I've known women who have been diagnosed while pregnant. They have to make a decision given the toxicity of chemo drugs and other treatments. There are situations that need to be considered, a lot of variables. We all come at it from different perspectives, no matter what your opinion.”
Testerman’s fundraising prowess is the result of her working through a network of longtime business leaders. Prominent donors include Jim and Natalie Haslam, former Gov. Bill and Chrissy Haslam, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, Betsey Creekmore, Rick Dover, Tim Hill, Patricia Bible, Glenn Reynolds, Wes Stowers, Randy Burleson and Sharon Pryse.
As she has been meeting with 18th District voters, Testerman said, she’s been asking them what they want to see from their representative and the issues they want to see prioritized.
“After all,” she said, “that's why I'm there — to be a voice for them, to represent them, their vision, their goals for the best quality of life.”
CORRECTION: The second-quarter fundraising total for Elaine Davis has been corrected to $36,495. The story has also been corrected to note Janet Testerman's 2016 run for County Commission and to clarify her position on school vouchers.