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GOP Primary Will Bring New Name to Tennessee District for First Time in Half Century

Seven Republicans are vying to replace longtime Rep. Jimmy Duncan

Tennessee Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is retiring after 15 full terms in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Tennessee Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is retiring after 15 full terms in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For the first time in more than 50 years, voters in the Knoxville area of Tennessee won’t be represented by a man named Duncan next year.

The retirement of John J. Duncan Jr. (whose father held the seat before him) has given way to a crowded Republican primary on Aug. 2 that will likely determine who will represent the 2nd District in 2019.

As in almost every Republican primary this year, each candidate is pledging fealty to President Donald Trump and his agenda. 

Add to that an alleged FBI investigation, accusations of future support for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and a sole female candidate who’s picking up late support, and this seven-way primary isn’t as sleepy as the dearth of attention would suggest.

Front-runner status?

Of the seven Republicans running, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has been the front-runner for most of the campaign. 

A longtime political figure in the area, he was first elected to the state House in 1994, and has never lost a race since.

He’s built up name recognition from years of public service in the area, as well as from a propensity for headline-grabbing moves, such as introducing a “road kill bill” in the state Senate that would allow motorists to eat the carcasses they killed and later for bringing the Animal Planet show “Finding Bigfoot” to Knox County.

He’s also faced his fair share of negative headlines for blurring the lines between personal and official business. Citing anonymous sources, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported in December that Burchett may have been the subject of an FBI investigation into possible tax evasion or bribery, which he has denied. 

Burchett has kept his TV spots positive, touting his support for Trump and his willingness to fight tax increases. He’s raised $635,000 since first filing with the FEC last summer.

ICYMI: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

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Bringing the heat

Burchett may still be the man to beat in this primary, but it’s now widely seen as a two-person race between him and state Rep. Jimmy Matlock.

Matlock, who owns a eponymous tire business, has cut into Burchett’s name ID advantage. But the question is by how much. None of the candidates have released recent polling and there’s been no public polling to speak of. 

Matlock’s campaign credits the tire company, and its anniversary tire commercials, for helping boost the candidate, who appears prominently on screen. (So prominently, in fact, that the Burchett campaign filed an FEC complaint against Matlock for crossing business and political lines.) Matlock’s campaign ads also promote him as “the tire guy.” 

Matlock hasn’t been afraid to go negative. His most noteworthy attack has been against Burchett for voting as a state senator to keep in power the Democratic speaker and lieutenant governor after Republicans gained control of the chamber in 2004. (Republicans had traditionally supported the Democratic speaker.)

“If he goes to D.C., will Burchett vote to put Nancy Pelosi in charge, too?” the narrator asks in the ad

Matlock has also attacked businessman Jason Emert in a mailer, falsely identifying his current rating from the National Rife Association as an “F.” Emert is rated “AQ,” which is a rating given to candidates.

Emert, who’s kicked about $350,000 of his own money into the race and has never held elected office, has produced flashy campaign videos that portray him as an “outsider” like Trump.

There’s no love lost between Burchett and Duncan, the 15-term congressman who announced his retirement last July. Duncan endorsed Matlock in May and appears on camera in his closing ad, calling him “one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”

“Many times that’s all we have to tell someone,” campaign spokesman Greg Butcher said about the power of Duncan’s endorsement. 

Matlock has raised $703,000 over the course of the campaign, including a personal $175,000 loan. He’s received financial support from North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. Matlock hasn’t said whether he’d join the group if invited, but Butcher said he’d likely vote in line with the caucus. 

The only woman

Ashley Nickloes, a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard, got a late start in the race because she was deployed to the Middle East — her eighth deployment — in March for an aerial refueling mission.

That meant she couldn’t campaign or fundraise until she returned in April — months after her primary opponents already had their campaigns up and running. She launched her first TV ad just before the start of early voting on July 13 and has raised $158,000 as of the end of the pre-primary reporting period.

Without any political experience, Nickloes started the race as an unknown entity, but since her return to the States, she’s picked up support from national and local corners. 

Winning for Woman, a new group formed to help elect Republican women, endorsed her and bundled money to her campaign. But the group has thus far not made any independent expenditures for Nickloes the way it has for a couple of other female candidates in GOP primaries. 

The Republican Main Street Parternship backed Nickloes last week, and its affiliated super PAC followed up with a $100,000 TV ad in the Knoxville media market touting her experience in the military and as a mother. 

Nickloes has received financial support from many of the GOP women in the House, including New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. 

The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker profiled Nickloes in a column over the weekend, which the campaign has blasted out in a fundraising email.  

Tennessee operatives remain skeptical of Nickloes’ ability to translate that  late national chatter into votes.

The Nickloes team, however, sees the endorsement of the Knoxville News Sentinel late last week as a big boost. 

“It’s clear that Nickloes has defined service much differently in her life than have her leading opponents,” the editorial board wrote. 

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