Election 2022: 2nd Congressional District
Democrat Mark Harmon is challenging incumbent Republican Tim Burchett in one of the nation’s most reliably red districts.
Since 1867, when the staunch Unionist U.S. Rep. Horace Maynard officially became a Republican, Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District has been a secure GOP stronghold. No Democrat has represented the Knoxville area since William Montgomery Churchwell left Congress in 1855.
No Democrat has represented the 2nd District since 1855.
From Reconstruction and Jim Crow; through two world wars, the Great Depression, the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project, and a World’s Fair; and despite cultural upheavals and ideological shifts between parties, Republicans have prevailed.
This year, University of Tennessee journalism professor and former Knox County Commissioner Mark Harmon is the latest Democrat seeking to defy that historical trend. But to do so, he must unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Tim Burchett in the November election.
Burchett, a former state legislator and Knox County mayor, is running for his third term. In 2018 and 2020, he defeated Democrat Renee Hoyos, each time garnering roughly two-thirds of the vote.
Harmon is making his second run for Congress — the first time was in Texas nearly a quarter century ago — and is building on his record as an outspoken Democratic officeholder in a largely Republican county.
The incumbent held a staggering lead in fundraising as of June 30. Burchett had raised $1.1 million during the first six months of the year and had $855,908 in cash on hand. Harmon raised $56,307 during the first half of the year and had $13,419 remaining at the end of June. The next financial disclosure report must be filed by Oct. 15.
Though Democratic-leaning Knoxville lies at the heart of the region, the district is predominantly rural and Republican, with small towns scattered throughout and anchored by mountains to the north and to the south. Its boundaries encompass Blount, Loudon, Grainger and Claiborne counties, along with portions of Jefferson and Campbell counties.
Harmon can point to one event that spurred him to run for Congress — the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that attempted to block the confirmation of the 2020 election results.
“I watched in horror at what happened at our Capitol,” Harmon said in an interview at Central Flats & Taps in North Knoxville. “And then, in the wee morning hours of Jan. 7, my congressman twice voted against the peaceful transfer of power and with the insurrectionists, and I could not stand that.”
In what has always been a procedural gathering to formally recognize the outcome of states’ votes in a presidential election, Burchett voted to reject the electors of the states of Pennsylvania and Arizona amid an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The Jan. 6 insurrection, as Harmon describes it, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning abortion rights are two issues that drive his candidacy.
“Once I pull off this upset, I will sponsor or co-sponsor legislation that would codify the protections of Roe and Casey,” he said. “Given the chance, I'll help write it.”
Harmon, whose previous congressional run was in a solidly Republican district centered around Lubbock, Texas, said he knows he needs to reach beyond voters who identify as Democrats.
“I need Republicans,” he said. “I need independents, I need all sorts of folks to join our effort. It’s a collective push. But I think I'm getting a lot of favorable reactions.”
Harmon, 65, grew up in a “not-poor-just-broke” family in Pittsburgh, Pa., and obtained his journalism degree from Penn State University. He earned advanced degrees from Syracuse University and Ohio University. He is a professor in UT’s College of Journalism and Electronic Media.
Harmon served one term representing North Knoxville on the Knox County Commission, notably providing damning testimony at the 2007 trial about commissioners violating the state’s sunshine law. Republican Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert gave him the sobriquet “University Twit,” which Harmon embraced by printing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase.
Though he’s best known in Knox County, Harmon said his message is being well received in other parts of the district.
His agenda includes increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, using more grants to fund college educations to reduce students’ reliance on loans and creating a public option for access to insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“Those are good issues,” Harmon said. “They're important issues.”
He circles back to Burchett’s record, which he describes as “atrocious,” to highlight their differences. He noted that Burchett voted against President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Bill, a bill that would extend education benefits to the dependents of Gold Star families, and support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. He also tweeted multiple times about transgender women, “He’s a dude.”
“Tim Burchett appears to be the kind of guy who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Harmon said.
He has expressed frustration that Burchett has refused to engage in debates. Harmon can be acerbic in his criticisms, but he said he makes strong statements because he believes Burchett is “a terrible congressman” and that he can do better.
“I think a good congressman has an understanding that government does not need to appease the powerful and should be a check on the powerful,” he said. “I’d be reaching out to struggling families, saying I want to make your life better to the extent that government can.”
As an incumbent, Burchett knows he has to run on his record, and he views that record as being consistent with his values over a long political career.
“It's been fiscally conservative, of course,” he said during an interview at Long’s Drug Store in Bearden. “Sometimes it gets misrepresented because I vote against a lot of things, but we just don't have the money. It's consistent with what's going on with our economy right now with inflation.”
Burchett said people in the district have responded well to his positions on economy, crime and fighting waste in government because they don't trust Washington.
Burchett said there’s no need to debate Harmon on the issues in advance of the Nov. 8 general election.
“Honestly, why do I need to debate somebody whose first vote literally will be for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker?” he asked. “In this district, that just doesn't fly. Our values are different.”
Burchett justified his votes on Jan. 6 by saying he had legitimate questions about the processes the courts in Pennsylvania and Arizona followed in the 2020 election. He also said Democrats questioned the legitimacy of President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
But he did not condone the response of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Once those people crossed those barriers, they were criminals,” said Burchett, who was the last House member to leave the chamber when the insurrectionists moved in. “There's no question in my mind.”
As part of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives, Burchett is often in the position of voting against legislation that makes it to the floor. He touts his personal relationships with Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters of California, though he acknowledges it doesn’t often translate into bipartisan support for legislation.
“I feel like I’ve made some good connections across the aisle, which makes people in both parties uncomfortable,” he said. “I vote against them all the time, but we remain cordial and friendly.”
Burchett, 58, has been a constant presence in local politics for nearly three decades. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1994 and to the state Senate in 1998. He won election as Knox County mayor in 2010 and served two terms before successfully running to succeed longtime Republican U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. in 2018.
Burchett said the legislative process can be frustrating because leaders can make revisions to bills at the last minute, washing away provisions hammered out in committee or among staff.
“People don't realize this, but when something's brought forward — it'll be the ‘Good Government Bill’ or whatever — 5 to 10 percent of it does what the title says and the rest is something else,” he said. “We (Republicans) do it, they do it. When we do it, it’s anarchy; when they do it, it's the system.”
He said abortion would end up being an issue for state legislatures, not Congress, but predicted Democrats would be able to use the issue to get out the vote in November.
Polls show that the GOP could wrest control of the House away from the Democrats. If that happens and Burchett is reelected, he hopes Republicans can accomplish policy goals.
“I would hope for some fiscal responsibility,” he said. “We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to get control of our border, of course. We've got to do something about fentanyl.”
Burchett said people are scared — about the economy, about crime and about the future for their families. He said voters should reelect him because he is the same person they sent to Washington in 2018.
“I still believe in the same core values,” he said. “I believe in family. I believe in our country, and I believe that we've got to get this crazy spending under control.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that Harmon earned an advanced degree from Ohio University and served one term on Knox County Commission.