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Jonathan Mattise, Associated Press
Jonathan Mattise, Associated Press
Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press
Kimberlee Kruesi, Associated Press
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor critical of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, won the Democratic nomination for governor Friday and will face Lee in November.
READ MORE: Tennessee governor signs transgender athlete ban in girls’ sports
Martin, a first-time political candidate, defeated Memphis attorney and City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. by a thin margin, with advocate Carnita Atwater finishing a distant third. Both Smiley and Atwater would have been the state’s first Black gubernatorial nominee if they had won.
Lee was unopposed Thursday as he looks to secure a second term in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006. He trounced his Democratic opponent in 2018.
Martin jumped into the gubernatorial race last year after becoming an outspoken critic of Lee’s handling of the virus outbreak. The Republican governor declined to issue a statewide mask mandate and signed off on several laws that banned largely vaccine mandates as the pandemic swept across the United States, killing more than 1 million people over two years.
However, even as virus pandemic continues to spread throughout the state, the outbreak is largely not a public priority — particularly during the gubernatorial campaign. Martin is now hoping that the tumultuous national political landscape and some of Lee’s recent controversies will help open a path for a Democrat to win a statewide seat.
Some of those include the ongoing fallout of the elimination of constitutional abortion rights. Lee has thrown his support behind enforcing some of the strictest bans in the U.S.
READ MORE: Inside a Memphis clinic during its final days of abortion care
Most recently, Lee declined to answer questions about whether he supported tweaking the state’s so-called trigger law to expand its exemptions and sidestepped directly answering whether he supported exempting children who were raped and then became pregnant.
Meanwhile, Lee has received wide criticism from both sides after he refused to refute comments by a charter school president who claimed that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges” during a reception the Republican attended.
Martin decidedly outraised and outspent Smiley, the next-highest fundraiser. Lee, however, takes a big campaign cash edge into the November election.
Before the race was decided, Martin’s campaign was quick to declare victory even as votes were still being tallied in Smiley’s hometown of Memphis. Smiley was quick to admonish Martin, demanding that the physician should have waited until the results were all in.
Lee 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.
Meanwhile, Andy Ogles, a far-right county mayor, won Tennessee’s crowded Republican primary on Thursday in a reconfigured congressional district in left-leaning Nashville that the party is hoping to flip in November. In a warning ahead of the general election, he said, “Liberals, we’re coming for you.”
Ogles, the Maury County mayor and onetime leader of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity’s state chapter, emerged among nine candidates after a hard-fought primary for the state’s 5th Congressional District. The seat drew heavy interest from Republicans after GOP state lawmakers carved Nashville into three districts, leading incumbent Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper to announce his retirement.
“We’re at war. This is a political war, a cultural war, and it’s a spiritual war,” Ogles said in his victory speech. “And as we go forward, we’ve got to get back to honoring God and country.”
Ogles will face Democratic state Sen. Heidi Campbell in November. The new district favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 12 percentage points in 2020.
In the congressional race, Ogles scored Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s endorsement and overcame a fundraising advantage from his top opponents, former Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead. 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 described the GOP primary as “establishment versus the conservative wing of the party,” saying voters were getting a “true conservative” in his nomination. He didn’t shy from inflammatory comments during his victory speech, calling for the impeachment of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as treason charges against the Department of Homeland Security secretary over the administration’s handling of immigration issues.
Campbell, who was unopposed in her Democratic primary, said the race was “symbolic of the crossroads” the country finds itself at.
“One where we move forward together, protecting working families, our freedoms, and future — or one where extreme politicians turn us backward, controlling our lives and ruling for the wealthy few,” she said before the GOP primary was called for Ogles.
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 in the nation Thursday.
In the other two Nashville-area districts, the Republican incumbents didn’t have primary opponents. The new maps weight their districts in their favor.
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In the new 6th District, which includes more of the city, Republican U.S. Rep. John Rose brings a huge fundraising edge into a general election against Democrat Randal Cooper, who defeated a primary opponent. Over in the new 7th District, Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Green ran unopposed and will face Democrat Odessa Kelly, who also didn’t face an opponent.
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.
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.
One local contest stood out Thursday.
In the Shelby County district attorney’s race, Democratic challenger Steve Mulroy was leading incumbent Republican Amy Weirich, who drew national attention when she prosecuted Pamela Moses, a Black woman, for registering to vote erroneously, resulting in a six-year prison sentence that was later discarded. Weirich has been criticized for failing to say outright whether she will or won’t prosecute doctors who perform abortions. Mulroy said he would make abortion prosecutions “extremely low priority.”
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