NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles on Thursday won Tennessee’s bruising nine-candidate Republican primary for an open congressional seat in Nashville, setting up a November fight over a district the GOP redrew to improve its chances of picking up the seat from Democrats.
The congressional contest in Thursday’s primary came as voters also cast ballots for a Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Republican Gov. Bill Lee advanced to November without a GOP opponent.
Ogles, a Columbia resident and one-time leader of Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter, emerged after weeks of negative advertising leading up to the election. He outpaced two other top contenders — former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead. Harwell and Winstead conceded.
Ogles scored Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s endorsement and overcame a fundraising gap compared with his other two main rivals. He also benefited the most from third-party groups, which ran TV ads touting his opposition to COVID-19 mandates and dragging down his opponents as insufficiently conservative.
Ogles now faces Democratic state Sen. Heidi Campbell, who was unopposed in Thursday’s primary, in the general election in November. The new district favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 12 percentage points in 2020.
The race for governor, meanwhile, remained too early to call between Nashville physician Jason Martin and Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr., with Memphis community advocate Carnita Atwater in third. Atwater or Smiley would be the state’s first Black Democratic nominee for governor. Martin is running for political office for the first time, spurred by Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s hands-off response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin decidedly outraised and outspent the next-highest fundraiser, Smiley.
Lee will have a strong advantage in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006. He defeated a Democratic opponent by 21 percentage points in 2018.
Redrawn congressional districts helped put Tennessee among the states where Republicans hope to flip a seat in a push to reclaim control of the U.S. House. Tennessee held the only statewide elections nationally Thursday.
Nashville’s 5th Congressional District drew heavy interest from Republicans after GOP state lawmakers carved Democratic-tilted Nashville into three districts, favoring their party in each seat. The longtime incumbent in the 5th District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, decided to retire, saying there was “no way” he could win reelection under the new redistricting maps.
In the other two Nashville-area districts, the Republican incumbents didn’t have primary opponents. The new maps weight their districts in their favor.
In the new 6th District, which includes more of Nashville, Republican U.S. Rep. John Rose brings a huge fundraising edge into a general election against Democrat Randal Cooper, who defeated a primary opponent.
There was also a full slate of state legislative primary races. Additionally, Thursday is general election night for many local contests. The highlight of those is in Shelby County — which encompasses Memphis — where Republican District Attorney Amy Weirich faces a challenge from Democratic civil rights lawyer Steven Mulroy.
But at least in Nashville, anyone who turned on a TV was more likely to see ads for a Republican running for the 5th Congressional District than a candidate for anything else.
Competing TV attacks — mostly run by generically named outside groups with mega-wealthy donors — were trying to sow doubt about the conservative resumes Harwell, Winstead and Ogles.
The election marked the first time voters get a say over a seat that had been subject to months of Republican political brokering.
Political infighting over the carefully crafted district — it meanders through six counties — led the state Republican Party to boot three candidates off the ballot, including Trump’s pick, former State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. One of the booted candidates, video producer Robby Starbuck, was attempting a write-in campaign.
Gov. Lee, meanwhile, is the first to avoid a primary challenge since Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1990, said Tennessee legislative historian Eddie Weeks.
Weeks said he could not find an African American nominee for governor, Democrat or Republican, in state history. Yet, he noted that in 1876, William Yardley, an African American Knoxville official later elected to the county court, ran as an independent when the Republican Party declined to nominate a candidate for governor. Democratic Gov. James Davis Porter won reelection that year.
Tennessee had a Black Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate as recently as 2020.