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Race to succeed Roe gets tight as candidates spend big, and hit hard

Early voting has already started for Aug. 6 Tennessee primary

State Rep. Timothy Hill has the support of the anti-tax Club for Growth in the crowded GOP primary for an open seat in Tennessee's 1st District.
State Rep. Timothy Hill has the support of the anti-tax Club for Growth in the crowded GOP primary for an open seat in Tennessee's 1st District. (Courtesy of Hill campaign)

President Donald Trump hasn’t endorsed any candidate in the race to succeed Rep. Phil Roe in Tennessee’s 1st District, but viewers watching TV ads from Republicans running in the Aug. 6 primary might wonder whether he’s endorsed several of them.

With early voting now underway, candidates have been touting themselves as Trump’s defender and attacking opponents as “forked tongue” politicians who increase taxes and are beholden to special interests. The crowded field includes outsider Diana Harshbarger, who has already spent $1.3 million of her own money, and Timothy Hill, a state legislator backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth.

Despite the pandemic, turnout for early voting has been higher than it was in 2016, according to media reports.

The district in eastern Tennessee is currently represented by the six-term Rep. Phil Roe, who is retiring. Voters have chosen a Republican to represent them in the House every time they’ve gone to the polls since 1880, which effectively makes the primary almost more important than the November election.

Harshbarger, a pharmacist who has never held office, aired several ads touting her outsider acumen and attacking candidates including Hill and Rusty Crowe, who has been a member of the Tennessee General Assembly since the 1990s.

Several other candidates have put large sums of their own wealth into their campaigns. Dermatopathologist Josh Gapp loaned himself $852,000 and former mayor of Kingsport, Tennessee, John Clark poured $493,000 into his bid, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The candidates all say they support gun rights and oppose abortion and raising taxes. But whether their past records as lawmakers always reflected those values, particularly when it comes to taxes, have been attacked by their opponents.

Hill, who raised $230,000, partly thanks to a $30,000 loan, has been endorsed by the Club for Growth, which spent about $858,000 him and opposing Harshbarger and Crowe, FEC data shows.

A poll by the Club for Growth found Hill leading the field followed by Harshbarger and Crowe, with all three within the margin of error. Another poll by a consulting firm published by WJHL found Harshberger ahead, followed by Crowe and Hill.

Club for Growth President David McIntosh sees Hill as an important soldier in the “battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Conference in Congress.”

“If we can get a real conservative in, that’ll help make sure that when they get the majority back, they’ve got the right people ready to fulfill their promises for limited government and more freedom,” he said.

The group’s ads highlighted a 2013 prescription drug fraud scandal involving Harshbarger’s husband, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison for distributing a misbranded Chinese-made dialysis drug, The Kingsport Times News reported.

Local TV station WJHL reported recently she was a shareholder and an officer in the company.

Kristin Davison, a general consultant with Harshberger’s campaign, said Harshbarger had nothing to do with the case, and was never interviewed by prosecutors.

“They didn’t even question her because it was clear she had no involvement,” she said.

In her own ad, Harshbarger accused her opponents of “lying trying to discredit my lifetime of hard work, just like the swamp tried to do to President Trump.”

Harshbarger has been endorsed by several groups seeking to get more women Republicans in the House and was named as one of E-PAC’s “Women to Watch. The PAC is established by New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik.

A Harshbarger mailer aimed at Crowe and Hill, depicting their photos in front of a darkened Capitol dome wrapped up by a snake reads “Career politicians: They get in office, then they act like snakes.”

Gapp, who participated in a recent debate that Hill attended but Harshbarger and Crowe did not, recently put out an ad that depicted Harshbarger with a long animated forked tongue, and Hill, Crowe and several other opponents as swamp-type creatures.

“Beware of forked tongued politicians who decry the swamp but take gobs of campaign cash from the slimiest of swamp creatures…” the ad begins.

In a recent debate, Hill defended himself against a variety of attacks, including questions about his loyalty to Trump. Despite the attacks, Hill says he believes he can win.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re doing very, very well because we’re being attacked from all sides,” he said.

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