The national dynamic of election day drama and razor-thin margins was noticeably absent in Tennessee last night, as the GOP once again dominated elections at all levels and reaffirmed Tennessee’s reputation as one of the most reliably-red states in the country. The night was punctuated by Governor Bill Lee’s resounding 65-33 victory over Democrat Jason Martin, guaranteeing Lee a second term and improving significantly upon his 21-point landslide win in 2018. Lee’s victory means that it has now been eleven years since a Democrat occupied Tennessee’s Governor’s office, when Phil Bredesen served from 2003 until 2011. Indeed, Bredesen’s 2006 victory marks the last time a Democrat won a statewide election in the Volunteer State.
The GOP also grew its Congressional delegation from Tennessee to 8-1 as Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles prevailed decisively in the newly-drawn Fifth Congressional District, defeating State Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) by 14 points and ensuring that Nashville would have a Republican in Congress for the first time since Reconstruction. Meanwhile, Republicans maintained their supermajority in the General Assembly, winning most contested races by 2:1 margins or more and actually picking up one House seat along the way, expanding their House tally to 77 of 99 overall seats.
Understated Campaign Pays Off for Lee
The widely popular Lee ran a low-key campaign, spending relatively little time on the trail, running “soft” commercials that laid out his economic accomplishments and pro-family record, and barely acknowledging his opponent. He touted the fact that he is now two for two in positive campaigns, noting that once again he refused to air any negative ads. Virtually all major media outlets called the race for Lee as soon as the polls closed.
Perhaps the highlight of Lee’s victory party in Franklin last night was the surprise appearance of First Lady Maria Lee, who has been out of the public eye since being diagnosed with lymphoma in August. The Governor noted that the First Lady couldn’t stay home, adding that the cancer battle has “been tough – but she’s tougher.”
Lee also highlighted infrastructure as a top priority for his second term. He noted that Tennessee is simply not building enough and maintaining enough roads to keep up with the incredible growth, pledging that “you’re going to be hearing a lot more about that, starting tomorrow even.”
Congressional Recap: TN-5 Pushes Congressional Delegation from 7-2 to 8-1
Ogles’ win culminated a long journey for the Tennessee Republican Party, which sought to use the redistricting process to add one more red seat to Tennessee’s Congressional delegation. Legislative leadership effectively divided Tennessee’s Fifth Congressional seat – Nashville’s seat, and one traditionally classified as “solid Democrat” – into three separate parts, melding each into a strongly Republican district. Democrats loudly protested the move to no avail, and longtime Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) announced that he would not seek re-election for the newly constituted seat. That set off a feeding frenzy of Republican hopefuls, including more than one that were relative newcomers to Nashville. Ogles emerged from a crowded primary field as the Republican nominee, outperforming other better-funded candidates. Ogles, who promoted himself as “Tennessee’s most conservative mayor,” faced respectable opposition in State Senator Campbell, but in the end prevailed by 14 points. Ogles was featured in the Washington Post last week as one of a new class of “hard line Republicans” that could push for issues such as impeachment and investigations upon arriving in Washington.
While Tennessee’s Seventh Congressional District also received a large chunk of Nashville/Davidson County, it did nothing to dampen the performance of incumbent Mark Green (R-Clarksville), who won a third term in Washington thanks to a 60-38 victory over Odessa Kelly (D-Nashville). The remaining Nashville portion was combined into the Sixth District, where Republican incumbent John Rose also won in a landslide by a 66-34 margin.
Republican U.S. Reps. Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlais, Chuck Fleischmann, Diana Harshbarger and David Kustoff were all successful in their reelection bids. Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) also won reelection, keeping him Tennessee’s lone remaining Democratic congressman.
Legislative Update: Few Upsets, But A Number of New Faces
There were few headlines in the legislative races, with numerous uncontested races on the ballot and many of the contested races featuring lopsided outcomes. In perhaps the most notable outcome, longtime incumbent John Mark Windle, a former Democrat that now is classified as an Independent, lost his reelection bid in House District 41 to Republican Ed Butler by a 53-47 margin. Windle’s seat was significant in that it was the lone rural legislative seat not held by the Republicans, who have dramatically reversed Tennessee’s legislative makeup over the last 15 years by eroding the Democrats’ stronghold over Tennessee’s rural districts, turning them exclusively red.
While Windle was the only incumbent to lose his election bid, there will still be several new faces when the legislature convenes in January. Indeed, there will be 17 new members in the 113th General Assembly, including Senators Brent Taylor (R-Memphis, succeeding Brian Kelsey) and Charlane Oliver (D-Nashville, succeeding Brenda Gilmore), as well as Reps. Caleb Hemmer (D-Nashville; Dist. 59), and Jake McCalmon (R-Franklin, replacing Glen Casada). And in one of the more interesting developments of the offseason, community activist Justin Jones (D-Nashville) – who was once banned from the Capitol for throwing a paper cup at then-Speaker Casada – is now part of the General Assembly, having prevailed in an uncontested election to represent House District 52.
Looking Ahead: Infrastructure, Education, Criminal Justice Expected to Highlight 2023 Session
In his victory speech last night, Governor Lee expressed his goal to address Tennessee’s infrastructure needs without going into debt or raising taxes, which will be a challenge in itself. Infrastructure will not be the only focus however, as issues such as parental rights and school choice also look to take center stage. Lee argued that “we can fund public schools and provide alternative opportunities for children at the same time if we are committed to funding students and not systems.”
Also look for considerable attention on criminal justice issues. The “Truth in Sentencing” law that was championed by the legislature late in the 2022 session and passed without Lee’s signature became a wedge issue between Lee and legislative leadership. The issue once again rose to the surface following two high-profile crimes in Memphis in September, where it was revealed that in both cases the assailants had only served partial sentences for previous crimes. That gave rise to a new series of calls for sentencing reform, especially among juveniles, and in response lawmakers created a joint committee to review the sentencing and supervision of criminal defendants, in order to provide additional safeguards to the public. Republican leadership has announced plans to push for even stricter sentencing laws in 2023.
The 113th General Assembly is scheduled to convene at noon on Tuesday, January 10, 2023.