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Tennessee Republicans Spar Over Trump Loyalty in Race to Replace Black

Winner of Aug. 2 GOP primary in 6th District likely heading to Congress

The two leading Republican candidates in Tennessee’s open 6th District are each arguing they’d be the strongest defender of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The two leading Republican candidates in Tennessee’s open 6th District are each arguing they’d be the strongest defender of President Donald Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The script is predictable by now. 

A Republican primary in an open seat that’s assured to stay red in November? The candidates are going to talk about how much they love President Donald Trump and how much their opponents don’t.

The dynamic is a reminder that despite the seemingly endless negative headlines captivating Washington, the president remains deeply popular in many pockets of the country.

That’s true in Tennessee’s 6th District, where GOP voters go to the polls next Thursday, Aug. 2, to pick a nominee — and a likely new member of Congress — for this safe GOP seat. Early voting has been going on for the past two weeks. Republican incumbent Diane Black is running for governor and will face a primary on the same day. 

The five-way primary for the Middle Tennessee-based seat features plenty of players familiar to internecine House Republican battles, from the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus to a GOP PAC that’s been critical of Trump. But neither have been huge actors in this race, allowing it to mostly fly under the radar heading into a rare Thursday primary. 

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Embracing Trump

Former Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner John Rose is the race’s front-runner. He has deep ties to the state’s farming community, having chaired the Tennessee State Fair Association and the Tennessee Future Farmers of America Foundation. But he’s also got a hand in tech. He owns a software and technology company that trains IT professionals.  

The campaign ad that appears prominently on Rose’s website plays like a laundry list of buzzwords to energize the Trump base: “Drug lords,” “MS-13 gang members,” “sex traffickers,” “build the wall,” “zero tolerance,” “end sanctuary cities,” “back President Trump,” and “reject career politicians.” The spot then cuts to Rose, walking through a field next to a tractor, entering a shiny office lobby, back in the field feeding livestock, making a point in the boardroom, and it ends with the ubiquitous candidate driving shot. 

The president carried the 6th District by nearly 50 points in 2016, and he remains popular here. A more recent ad also includes a photo of Rose and Trump, standing next to each other with their thumbs up. The spot attacks Rose’s main opponent, former Judge Bob Corlew, as a “career politician” who “can’t change Washington.”

Corlew, who recently moved to the district, is arguing that he’s Trump’s strongest ally, using an endorsement from Tennessee Right to Life to tout his conservative credentials.

He’s also using attacks against him from the American Future Fund, which has been critical of Trump, to argue that “Never Trumpers” are his opponent’s biggest supporters.  

The fund spent millions of dollars against Trump during the 2016 election and ran ads against Trump-backed South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster in this year’s primary. 

While the group has only spent about $50,000 on mailers attacking Corlew, the former judge’s campaign has seized on that effort. He’s also attacking Rose for attending a D.C. fundraiser last week, using footage of him in Washington to tie him to “the swamp.”

An Army veteran, Corlew was a chancery court judge in Cannon and Rutherford counties until 2014, before becoming the president of Lions Club International. 

Both candidates are well-funded. Rose had raised $2.9 million, including a $500,000 personal loan, by the end of the pre-primary reporting period which ended July 13. He recently received a check from former Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee’s 8th District, who retired last year and then briefly ran for Senate this cycle. Corlew’s fundraising by the close of the pre-primary period came overwhelmingly in the form of a $1.5 million personal loan.

A third candidate, state Rep. Judd Matheny, attracted early interest from the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus, but the House Freedom Fund hasn’t done much for him and he hasn’t gained as much traction. He bought a campaign car for $14,000 in March, and ended the pre-primary period with just $16,000 in the bank, compared to $327,000 for Corlew and $1.1 million for Rose.

GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein had also donated to Matheny, who’d raised $246,000 by July 13. The National Rifle Association is behind Matheny, as is California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who campaigned for him in the state earlier this summer, according to the campaign

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