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AP News Guide: A look at Tennessee’s primary elections


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s primary election Thursday will determine party nominees for governor, Congress and state legislative seats.

A handful of ballot initiatives and district attorney races are also on the ballot in some local counties, as well as Supreme Court retention for all of the justices.

Here’s a look at some of the top contests:


Republican Gov. Bill Lee is running unopposed in the GOP primary as he seeks a second term, marking the first time in about three decades an incumbent governor has had no primary opponent. Meanwhile, three Democratic candidates are hoping to win their party’s nomination. Those three are Nashville physician Jason Martin, Memphis councilmember JB Smiley Jr. and Memphis community advocate Carnita Atwater.

Tennessee has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006.


Earlier this year, Tennessee’s GOP-dominated General Assembly split left-leaning Nashville into three congressional districts with the goal of flipping a seat from Democrat to Republican. Longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. House Rep. Jim Cooper has since announced he wouldn’t seek reelection because he felt there was no path for him to win.

After some jockeying over who qualifies for the ballot, nine GOP candidates are in the race. This includes the top fundraising hopefuls: Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, from Columbia; former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, from Nashville; and retired Tennessee National Guard Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead, of Franklin.


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State Sen. Heidi Campbell from Nashville is the only candidate running in the Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, five out of Tennessee’s nine congressional members are running unopposed in the primary: U.S. House Reps. Diana Harshbarger, Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlais, John Rose and Mark Green.

Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis, and Republican Reps. David Kustoff and Chuck Fleischmann face underfunded challengers in the primary. Cohen is opposed by M. Latroy Alexandria-Williams, with three Republicans vying to face the winner in November — Leo AwGoWhat, Charlotte Bergmann and Brown Dudley. Kustoff has three primary opponents in the 8th District, Danny Ray Bridger Jr., Gary Dean Clouse and Bob Hendry, with two Democrats, Tim McDonald and Lynnette Williams, competing for their party’s nod. Fleischmann is opposed by Sandy Casey in the 3rd District GOP primary, with Democrat Meg Gorman awaiting the winner.

In the 6th District, Democrats Randal Cooper and Clay Faircloth face off to advance to take on Rose. And in the 4th District, Wayne Steele and Arnold White are running in the Democratic primary to challenge DesJarlais.

Republicans currently hold seven of Tennessee’s congressional seats, while Democrats fill two.


In the Republican-supermajority Legislature, all of Tennessee’s 99 state House seats are up for election this year. There are currently 15 open seats, the majority of them held by Republicans. Twenty-one seats feature contested Republican primaries and nine include contested Democratic primaries.

Some of the openings include the seat of disgraced former House Speaker Glen Casada, who was ousted from the top position in 2019 after a series of scandals. Former GOP Rep. Robin Smith resigned earlier this year after facing federal charges that allege she ran a political consulting kickback scheme with Casada and his former chief of staff, neither of whom have been charged to date.

Notably, long-serving state Rep. John Mark Windle has filed to run as an independent after being registered as a Democrat for almost three decades.

In the Senate, 17 of 33 seats are on the ballot, four with contested GOP primaries and two with contested Democratic races. Three departing senators leave open seats: Republicans Brian Kelsey and Mike Bell, and Democrat Brenda Gilmore. Kelsey is facing a federal indictment on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws during his failed 2016 congressional campaign.


All five seats on Tennessee’s Supreme Court are up for an eight-year retention election, meaning voters simply decide whether to let them keep their seats. They are Jeff Bivins, Sarah Campbell, Sharon Lee, Holly Kirby and Roger Page. Rejections are extremely rare, and they are all expected to clear the vote.


Tennessee’s most populous county, Shelby, features a couple of key races and a notable referendum.

County Mayor Lee Harris is being challenged by Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan. Harris, a Black Democrat, is seeking his second four-year term. Morgan, a white Republican, has served on the council since 2016.

Republican incumbent and longtime Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, who has held the position since 2011, faces Democratic civil rights attorney and former county commissioner Steve Mulroy.

The pair have clashed in debates, and the issue of abortion prosecutions under the state’s pending “trigger law” has become an issue. The law essentially would ban all abortions statewide and make it a felony to perform the procedure.

Mulroy said he would make prosecution of those who perform abortions an “extremely low” priority. Weirich has not said outright whether she will or won’t prosecute doctors who perform abortions, instead saying that doing so would violate Tennessee code forbidding prosecutors from issuing “a broad and hypothetical statement without an actual charge or case.”