Knoxville businessman Eddie Mannis survived a heated challenge to his Republican primary victory over Gina Oster and will be the Republican nominee for State House District 18 in November.
Mannis defeated Oster by 99 votes in August, but she filed a challenge with the Tennessee Republican Party’s State Executive Committee, saying Mannis is a Democrat and that he received cross-over votes in the Republican primary – meaning Democrats who voted on a Republican ballot.
It made no difference. Committee members joined on a loud and sometimes frazzled conference call Tuesday night and approved Mannis’ candidacy by an announced vote of 43-18.
“It wouldn’t have been my perfect way to get on the ballot, but I’m thankful for the 43 members who have confidence in me and we’re going to work hard,” Mannis told Knox News after the vote. “In some ways the pressure is on now even more than before, so we’re going to work hard.”
Tennessee has open primaries and there is no way to see who voters selected on their ballots. Voters could have, in theory, just as easily have voted for Oster and not Mannis because they liked her candidacy or because they think she would make an easier opponent for Democrat Virginia Couch in November.
More: Knox County GOP chairman bashes GOP state nominee Eddie Mannis
Oster said she stood up for what she believed in and she’s proud she didn’t have to rely on anyone to vouch for her candidacy.
“It’s been a hard few weeks, it really has, but I knew I was standing up for something I believed in … standing up and doing the right thing is not always easy,” she said.
Trouble was brewing
Local Republicans attempted to get Mannis removed from the ballot before the election ever took place because Mannis voted in the Democratic presidential and Knox County primary in March.
Mannis did vote in the Democratic primary, but it was the only time since 1984 where he switched sides, according to a copy of his voting record. He told Knox News the decision was strategic because he didn’t want Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to be the Democratic nominee.
Tennessee GOP party chairman Scott Golden told Knox News Mannis didn’t meet the party’s bona fide standards for voting Republican in three of the last four state primaries (Mannis only voted in two of the four), but party bylaws allow elected members to vouch for candidates and they did. State Sen. Richard Briggs, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs all vouched for Mannis, allowing him on the ballot.
There was discussion and a good bit of confusion between members of the committee Tuesday that the vouching done in favor of Mannis was not valid and that his candidacy should be disqualified. They feared they could face a legal challenge, but that wasn’t enough.
After the election in August, Knox County Republican Party Chairman Randy Pace told the crowd at the Republican watch party that his opposition to Mannis was strictly politics, not sour grapes over his victory. It had everything to do with Mannis supporting a Democrat over President Donald Trump, he said.
“I don’t care whether you like Trump or not,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s got nothing to do with the Knox County Republican Party. You’re welcome, but you’re going to support Republicans and you’re not going to support Democrats.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s call, Oster provided committee members a list of roughly 90 names of people who had voted Democrat in the past who voted Republican in August. The document included notes beside names like “husband said he is a Democrat,” “anti Trump post” and it noted supposed donations to Democratic campaigns for Phil Bredesen and President Barack Obama, among others.
When shown a copy of the list, Knox County Elections Administrator Chris Davis told Knox News it was the first he’d seen of this or heard of it and he couldn’t verify its legitimacy.
Like much of Knox County, the district has been served by Republicans for many years. Before Daniel, the district was represented by Republicans Steve Hall and Stacey Campfield – the lightning rod legislator – before him.
But in 2018, Democrat Greg Mackay made things interesting when he received 48.5% of the vote against Daniel. With the presidential race drawing a large number of voters to the polls, there’s enough reason to think November’s race could be close again.
Avoiding a ‘slippery slope’
James Corcoran is one of two committee members who live in the district. He gave money to Oster’s campaign but voted to keep Mannis on the ballot because, he said, it’s a slippery slope when the State Executive Committee starts picking and choosing races to weigh in on.
Committee member Amy Jones said even though the SEC has voted to close the state’s primaries to only party members, the legislature hasn’t acted. So, she said, the results should stand.
“The people have spoken. Whether we were right or wrong in what we did, Eddie Mannis was on the ballot and so was Gina. And Eddie Mannis won that vote and it was the voice of the people and I think it needs to stand.”
This has happened before
There is precedent for claims of switching primary ballots. In 2008, state Sen. Rosalind Kurita won the Democratic primary by 19 votes over Tim Barnes, who claimed there had been heavy Republican crossover voting and alleged that poll workers directed his supporters to vote in the wrong primary.
The Democratic Party’s Executive Committee voided the results and installed Barnes who had no Republican challenger (though he did defeat Kurita when she ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign). A federal judge later ruled in the party’s favor.
Democrats were angry with Kurita after casting a key vote in favor of then-Sen. Ron Ramsey in the Republican’s 2007 election as Senate speaker. Ramsey had subsequently named Kurita as Senate speaker pro tempore, the ceremonial No. 2 position in the upper chamber, according to the Associated Press.
There are 62 Republican State Executive Committee members, two per state senate district. Each state senator selects a male and female representative. There are currently four vacancies on the committee, according to the party’s website.
Email Tyler Whetstone at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. If you enjoy Tyler’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing.