After GOP jockeying, Nashville House redraw heads to primary
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Republicans spent months setting the stage to try to flip Nashville’s representation in Congress, meticulously redrawing the political boundaries and culling their lineup of candidates. Now, voters are finally getting involved.
GOP lawmakers divided the left-leaning city into political districts early this year, splitting its one seat into three to help Republicans gain a seat. The fresh opportunity sparked infighting, leading state party leaders to rule out President Donald Trump’s preferred candidate and two others.
Republicans have plenty of options as the 5th Congressional District heads into the Aug. 4 primary. Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper decided against seeking reelection, saying he couldn’t win any of the three new seats that sever Nashville.
In the nine-candidate Republican field are: Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles from Columbia; former state House Speaker Beth Harwell from Nashville; retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead of Franklin; Geni Batchelor, a retired small business owner from Lebanon; and five others from Nashville: legislative staffer Tres Wittum; Jeff Beierlein, who served as an Army helicopter pilot; Natisha Brooks, who runs a homeschool academy; Timothy Bruce Lee, a paramedic; and Stewart Parks, a real estate businessman.
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The lone Democratic candidate is state Sen. Heidi Campbell from Nashville.
The GOP candidates hardly disagree on policies and instead are touting themselves as tough conservatives, Trump supporters and staunch opponents of President Joe Biden.
Winstead and Harwell shot TV commercials at the U.S.-Mexico border on immigration. Ogles posted a video, saying, “This is what I think about Biden’s policies,” before he fired a flamethrower into the air. He also has highlighted his fight against COVID-19 mandates. Parks said during a debate that he cannot carry a gun currently because he was charged after entering the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
Each seeks to stand out enough to advance to November, likely to face Campbell in a six-county district that preferred Trump over Biden in 2020 by 12 percentage points.
Ogles, Harwell and Winstead have drawn early attacks in TV ads by outside groups, an indication of what could be seen as their frontrunner status.
A PAC fueled by the Club for Growth is targeting Harwell and Winstead. Ads have criticized Harwell for supporting a state gas tax increase.
The PAC also bashed Harwell for landing the Tennessee Education Association’s endorsement in the 2018 Republican governor’s race primary, when she finished 4th.
Harwell’s campaign responded that she “eliminated the state income tax, the death tax, and cut the state sales tax twice,” saying she “ended common core and supports the state ban on Critical Race Theory.”
The PAC is blasting Winstead for voting in Democratic primaries in 2008 and earlier, and donating more than $2,500 to Democratic campaigns a dozen or more years ago. His federal donations to Republicans top $36,000.
In a statement, Winstead said he never planned to run for Congress and wasn’t as involved as he should have been before 2010, saying that changed due to the Obama and Biden administrations.
“In the Army, we were taught the importance of owning up to our mistakes,” Winstead said. “Voting in the wrong primary and contributing to the wrong candidates certainly fits into that category.”
Meanwhile, a PAC fueled by Oracle executive chairman Larry Ellison has attacked Ogles over several tax-related issues, including his support of a 2020 referendum that raised the local sales tax from 2.25% to 2.75%, which he said addressed budget issues. Recently, Ogles vetoed a property tax increase.
Harwell said she’s not seeking an endorsement from Trump, who has remained quiet after his preferred candidate, Morgan Ortagus, was removed from the ballot. Ortagus was a U.S. State Department spokesperson under Trump.
Video producer Robby Starbuck received an endorsement from Sen. Rand Paul.
The Trump endorsement miffed some Republicans, who criticized Ortagus for having just recently moved to Tennessee. State Sen. Frank Niceley, a Harwell supporter, then helped pass residency requirements for federal candidates but election officials determined it couldn’t apply retroactively.
The Tennessee Republican Party ultimately removed Ortagus, Starbuck and small business owner Baxter Lee over complaints that their voting records. Instead, Ortagus joined Winstead’s campaign as a national security adviser.
Starbuck sued and was briefly ordered back on the ballot, only to see the state Supreme Court overturn it. He’s running as a write-in candidate.