Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles prevailed Thursday in a closely watched Republican primary in Tennessee’s new 5th Congressional District, as voters in the state went to the polls to nominate a slate of midterm candidates.
Thursday’s primaries set the stage for races up and down the ballot. Republican Gov. Bill Lee had no primary challenger and national Democrats haven’t targeted his reelection race in the conservative-leaning state. Three candidates sought the Democratic nomination, and Jason Martin, a physician whose campaign focused on health-care access and Lee’s record during the pandemic was projected to to win the primary, according to the AP.
Meanwhile, in the state’s most populous county, a race for prosecutor was a partisan showdown over abortion rights and voting rights, with a Democratic challenger holding an early lead over the Republican incumbent.
Lee and the Republican supermajority in Nashville enacted a broad conservative agenda, including a trigger law that will ban abortion in the state following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Lee also signed off on a congressional map that nudged Rep. Jim Cooper (D) into retirement, by splitting up his traditionally liberal 5th Congressional District.
“I could not stop the General Assembly from dismembering Nashville,” Cooper said in January, when the map was finalized.
The new 5th Congressional District stretches from Nashville to take in deep-red counties south of the city; in 2020, President Donald Trump carried the new seat by double digits. Nine Republicans competed for what’s now a safe red seat in Congress, while Campbell was unchallenged for her party’s nomination.
Trump has stayed out of the GOP primary since Morgan Ortagus, a veteran of his administration’s State Department, was removed from the ballot over residency issues. Beth Harwell, a former state House speaker, outraised the field and adopted the Trump brand, emphasizing that the former president put her on the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“I respect a lot of what Donald Trump did, but his endorsement is not what I want,” Harwell said at a June 27 debate in one of the conservative counties newly added to the district. “I want the endorsement of the people of the 5th Congressional District.”
Support for Trump was a major theme of that debate, as it had been throughout the race. Onstage with Harwell, Ogles called the Biden administration “a criminal enterprise,” adding that the president and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas should be “impeached and then tried for treason.”
Stewart Parks, a real estate agent who joined the crowds in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, the day a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, and was later arrested in connection with his appearance there, went further than Ogles, embracing false claims about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. “I’m the only candidate in this race that has not called him president,” Parks said of President Biden. “He is not the legal president of United States of America.”
While Harwell raised more from individual donors than her rivals, most of the on-air spending focused on Ogles. Conservative super PACs spent nearly $1.3 million on pro-Ogles advertising, and anti-Ogles PACs tried to match it. One of them, Conservative Americans PAC, spent more than $700,000 on TV ads that called Ogles a “phony” over his support for a gas tax increase.
The winner of the primary will begin as a favorite in the November general election.
In Shelby County, voters went to the polls to determine who becomes district attorney. Amy Weirich, a Republican appointed in 2011 and then elected to an eight-year term, faced Democrat Steven Mulroy, who has criticized her handling of a voter fraud case and said he wouldn’t prioritize abortion cases if he got the job.
While Biden carried the county by 30 points in 2020, turnout in midterm-year primaries has historically been low, which helped Weirich eight years ago. Both candidates tried to mobilize their partisan bases and nationalize the campaign.
Weirich ran a TV ad that splices together a photo of Mulroy at a Starbucks unionization rally with an unrelated clip of protesters marching to “defund the police.” Mulroy’s ads link the incumbent to Trump, with images of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to dramatize the point: “Both break the rules and are out of control.”
Mulroy’s campaign garnered support from racial justice advocates in other parts of the country, including the family of George Floyd and the singer John Legend. Weirich, who has been endorsed by local police and sheriff organizations, warned that Mulroy would let criminals out of jail and add to a crime rate that has risen since 2020.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. This version has been corrected.