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Tennessee primaries will clarify races for open House seats

July 28, 2018

With three open seats among Tennessee’s nine congressional districts, the state’s U.S. House contingent is going to welcome some new faces into the fold.

The partial makeover starts with the primaries.

On Thursday, Democrats and Republicans will choose party nominees in the races for the nine House seats in the November general election. Six incumbents appear safe in the primaries — barring major upsets — so the focus will be on two seats vacated by two candidates seeking other jobs, and another created by a retirement.

Knoxville Republican John Duncan Jr.’s decision to leave Congress frees up District 2 in northeast Tennessee. Republican Diane Black’s gubernatorial campaign clears District 6 for a new House member to represent the northern part of the state. And Republican Marsha Blackburn’s candidacy for U.S. Senate to replace Bob Corker opens up District 7 for new blood in Middle and West Tennessee.

It’s that race that may have the most noteworthy candidates.

On the Democrat side, Justin Kanew, a film writer and producer and former “Amazing Race” contestant from College Grove, is running against Special Forces Green Beret Matt Reel of Primm Springs. Kanew leads in fundraising over Reel, who returned from a deployment to South America, where he worked to combat drug trafficking, about two months ago.

State Sen. Mark Green of Ashland City, who withdrew as President Donald Trump’s nominee for Army secretary earlier this year amid criticism of his comments about gay and transgender people, is the lone GOP candidate in the solidly Republican district.

Neither Kanew nor Reel has held elected office. But both say they are qualified to lead a large district that has leaned Republican in recent years. It includes the predominantly white Nashville suburbs of Williamson County, the city of Clarksville — which includes the Fort Campbell Army base — and a slew of rural counties. Blackburn has represented the district since 2002.

Contributors to Kanew’s campaign include actor Susan Sarandon and Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeannie Buss. Former congressmen Harold Ford Jr. and Lincoln Davis have donated to Reel’s campaign.

“As a producer, I was tasked with figuring out how to put things together and be a problem solver,” Kanew said. Washington needs fewer “career politicians,” he added, describing himself as a “bridge builder who reaches across the aisle to talk to people.”

Reel, who also has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, calls himself an “underdog” because his campaign time was condensed by his most recent deployment.

“What I’ve learned in the military is being a servant leader and putting the needs of others before my own,” said Reel, who worked for Davis when he was in office. “Unfortunately, we’re not getting that out of Washington. We’re getting a lot of dysfunction.”

Both Democrats says they want to increase access to affordable health care and raise wages in the district. They’ve criticized Green for being part of a Republican-led General Assembly that voted against federal funding to expand Medicaid in Tennessee under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Green, a former Army flight surgeon who grew up in a small town in Mississippi, has raised more than $1.6 million as the only GOP candidate in the District 7 race. He has been endorsed by prominent conservatives such as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum.

“The breadth of my life experience really allows me to serve better than anyone the breadth of this district,” Green said.

Green withdrew from consideration for Army Secretary last year after he was heavily criticized over his remarks about Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. Green called the attacks “false and misleading” and accused Democrats and the media of orchestrating a “hit job” on his nomination.

In District 2, the large Republican field includes Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, state Rep. Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City, military aviator Ashley Nickloes, and businessman Jason Emert of Louisville. Three Democrats are vying for that party’s nomination in the traditionally GOP district.

Matlock and Burchett have leveled negative attacks at each other. The Knoxville News Sentinel has endorsed Nickloes.

Retired judge Bob Corlew of Mount Juliet and Cookeville farmer John Rose have targeted each other in media advertisements on the Republican side of the District 6 race. Both have spent a lot of their own money on their campaigns.

Dr. Dawn Barlow of Rickman, United Methodist minister Merrilee Wineinger of Hendersonville, and Peter Heffernan of Gallatin lead in fundraising on the Democrat side.

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Sainz reported from Memphis.

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