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3 Things to Watch in Tennessee’s Thursday Primaries

Can a woman win a seven-way GOP primary in Knoxville area?

Ashley Nickloes is the only woman running in a seven-way GOP primary in Tennessee’s 2nd District. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ashley Nickloes is the only woman running in a seven-way GOP primary in Tennessee’s 2nd District. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Tennessee has the honor of voting on a Thursday — yes, a Thursday. While most of the attention will be on the competitive Republican gubernatorial primary, there’s plenty of action on the GOP side at the congressional level, too.

Three House Republicans from the Volunteer State aren’t seeking re-election. Diane Black is running for governor, Marsha Blackburn is running for Senate and John J. Duncan Jr. is retiring. That’s made for a few crowded primaries among ambitious conservatives looking to take advantage of open-seat races. Meanwhile, a freshman in the delegation is being outspent more than 2-to-1 by his primary challenger.

Here are three things to watch in Thursday’s primaries:

1. Will a woman win a GOP primary?  

Republicans don’t have the best track record of helping female candidates through primaries. Two outside groups are trying in this race, with Winning for Women making a five-figure independent expenditure and Defending Main Street spending $100,000 on ads to boost the only woman running in the seven-way primary in the Knoxville-anchored 2nd District. 

Ashley Nickloes is a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard, but she got a late start in this race because she was deployed to the Middle East in March for an aerial refueling mission. Being on active duty meant she couldn’t legally raise money or campaign. (Nickloes isn’t the only Tennessee congressional candidate who had to pause campaigning because of active duty service this year. Matt Reel, who’s running for the Democratic nod in the 7th District, has had to navigate similar hurdles.)

Nickloes’s competition includes two white men with more establishment political backgrounds. But besides the national support she’s picked up, she also earned the attention of the Knoxville News Sentinel, which endorsed her last month.

Everyone agrees Nickloes has picked up momentum since returning from her eighth deployment in April. The question is whether it’s too little too late. 

2. Will an incumbent lose?

Freshman Rep. David Kustoff, who won a 13-way Republican primary for the open 8th District in 2016, is facing a primary threat from perennial candidate and self-funder George Flinn.

Kustoff is one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House. If he loses his Western Tennessee seat Thursday, he’d be the third House Republican to fall in a primary this year.

Tennessee Republicans give Kustoff the edge, even though Flinn’s outspending him by more than 2-to-1. President Donald Trump endorsed Kustoff last week, and the congressman has the backing of the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life. Not to mention, Kustoff’s fundraising shows a stronger base than Flinn’s: the congressman has raised about $1.5 million compared to his challenger’s $2,000.

3. Which GOP faction will gain a new member? 

The five-way primary for the open 6th District seat, which Black is vacating, 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 President Donald Trump.

Former Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner John Rose, who’s regarded as the front-runner, is all about Trump in his ads. His spots feature images of them standing side-by-side with their thumbs up. 

But an outside group that’s spent millions of dollars attacking Trump is spending against Rose’s biggest competition, former Judge Bob Corlew. That’s allowed Corlew to argue Rose is supported by “Never Trumpers” and that Corlew is actually Trump’s strongest ally.

Meanwhile, the House Freedom Fund, GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, and the National Rifle Association are behind state Rep. Judd Matheny, who’s raised significantly less money than the other two and hasn’t gained nearly as much traction.

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