Tennessee elections 2020: First contest in coronavirus pandemic comes with high-profile races

On Thursday, Tennesseans will head to the polls to cast their vote for candidates in the federal and state primaries and host of local offices across the state. The ballot includes races the hotly contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

In the weeks leading up to the election, more than 578,000 Tennesseans voted in person or absentee during early voting, which ended Aug. 1. 

Here are some of the important issues and races to watch as Tennessee holds its first election during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Hagerty, Sethi and the U.S. Senate 

The race to replace longtime Republican Lamar Alexander in the U.S. Senate has reached a near-fever pitch in the last month with leading candidates Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi working overtime to sway GOP voters.

Heading into the race, Hagerty, who previously served as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Japan, was the favorite. But in recent weeks, Sethi’s campaign has pointed to internal and external polls to suggest a tight race. 

Sethi, who is an orthopedic trauma surgeon, has attempted to portray himself as a conservative outsider willing to take on the “establishment” while still supporting Trump.

Hagerty has leaned heavily on Trump’s endorsement, including hosting two phone calls with the president and voters, while getting a boost from the business community and other Trump allies.

In recent weeks, the race has turned ugly as the candidates and outside interest groups have launched attacks, including at in-person events and on radio and television.

Overall, the race to succeed Alexander will be among the most closely watched on Thursday. Fifteen Republicans are on the ballot but Hagerty and Sethi are the heavy favorites. 

Lines, other election day issues

Since March, there have been more than 40 primary elections across the country, including those in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington this week. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced election officials to make a multitude of changes, ranging from consolidating polling places to expanding access to absentee voting. 

While many states saw relatively smooth election day operations, others experienced significant problems. In Georgia, polling places were limited and some locations opened with no equipment. In South Carolina, some locations opened late. In Wisconsin, voters struggled with the dramatically reduced number of polling places available. 

In March, some Middle Tennessee voters were forced to wait in line for hours to cast their vote in the presidential primary after officials consolidated polling places due to the tornadoes that ripped through the state. 

Heading into Thursday’s elections, there are no similar plans for such consolidation. The Secretary of State’s office told The Tennessean on Tuesday only 12 polling locations out of 1,758 across the state have been closed. 

Although state and local election officials are optimistic about Tennessee’s ability to have a problem-free primary, any number of issues could complicate matters.

Knox County is using a new paper ballot system for the first time. In Shelby County, officials are using a new system to count absentee ballots. 

Given how elderly citizens are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19, some election officials are concerned about the possibility of losing poll workers at the last minute. In an effort to be proactive, state and local officials have been recruiting younger Tennesseans to help oversee elections. 

And with all but two of Tennessee’s 95 counties exceeding an acceptable COVID-19 transmission rate, voting in nursing homes will be very different. 

Absentee ballots

Prior to Thursday’s primary, Tennessee voters requested absentee ballots in record numbers.

The surge came as a Davidson County judge ordered the state to allow any Tennessean concerned about COVID-19 to be able to request an absentee ballot. The state challenged the ruling, including last week in front of the state Supreme Court. The court has yet to issue a ruling, which could have implications for the November election. 

Although the state won’t officially say how many mail-in-ballots were cast until Thursday, the surge could lead to delayed results. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office said voters should be prepared for such a possibility. 

Further, questions remain over whether all absentee ballots will be counted. Anyone who requested an absentee ballot will need it delivered by mail to their local election commission by the time polls close on Thursday. Some citizens continue to worry about adequate postage; others are concerned about the postal service’s ability to process the surge in mail.

And the questions over absentee ballots is not contained to counting. Hagerty and Sethi, the top GOP U.S. Senate candidates, like Trump, have raised doubts about absentee ballots.

With so many issues with absentee voting, candidates in close races could find even more reasons than unusual to challenge the results.

US House District 5 contest

For the first time in a decade, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper is facing a primary challenge, this time with two Democrats hoping to unseat the longtime incumbent.

Cooper, who has represented Tennessee’s 5th Congressional district since 2003, will be joined by Keeda Haynes and Joshua Rawlings on the Democratic primary ballot. 

Cooper says he welcomes the challenge, which has forced him to run TV ads for the first election in years that highlight his experience in Congress.

Haynes is a first-time candidate who is critical of Cooper for failing to adequately address issues ranging from criminal justice reform to affordable housing.

Rawlings unsuccessfully ran for the legislature in 2014 as a Republican. And like Haynes, he’s criticized Cooper, calling him ineffective.

Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will become the de facto winner — there is no Republican opposition in the general election.

US House District 1 race

The race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Phil Roe in upper East Tennessee has brought out over a dozen Republicans jockeying for position in what has become a contest of wills.

The official count is 15 candidates. They are led by five who have or had elected service including longtime state Sen. Rusty Crowe, state Rep. David Hawk, state Rep. Timothy Hill, former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden and two-term Kingsport Mayor John Clark. Doctor Josh Gapp and Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger are also among the leading candidates in the race.

In 2016, David Kustoff won a Republican primary for an open seat in West Tennessee that drew 13 Republicans. He won with just 27% of the vote. A similar outcome could be in order Thursday.

For all of the confusion and crowded airwaves for the Republicans, there is just one Democrat running: Air Force veteran Blair Walsingham. Both of her opponents, Chris Rowe and Larry Smith, have dropped out of the race — though both will still appear on Thursday’s ballot. Walsingham is a mother of four, small business owner and new to politics.

Legislative incumbents facing challenges

As happens almost every election cycle, there could be a few surprises. Although its difficult to unseat an incumbent lawmaker, several candidates are hoping for such upsets. 

In 2018, two incumbent Republicans and one Democrat in the state legislature lost in the primary. In the general election, Democrats were able to pick up one seat in the state House of Representatives. The party flipped seats held by former House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, an incumbent at the time. But Republicans picked up the legislative seat long held by former House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

In 2016, two incumbent House Republicans lost in the primary. 

In this year’s primary, four incumbent state senators and 23 incumbent members of the House of Representatives face challenges. 

Three Republicans and one Democrat are facing challenges in the Senate. In the House, 14 Republicans and nine Democrats face primary opponents. 

Tyler Whetstone contributed to this report. 

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Reach Joel Ebert at jebert@tennessean.com or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.



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