Open Seat Watch: Tennessee’s 6th District

In the Volunteer State, we have two open seats, already, this cycle – the 2nd and 6th districts. We’ll start with a profile of TN-06, as it opened up first. Four-term Rep. Diane Black (R) announced earlier this month that she’d try trading Washington D.C. for Nashville, and launched a bid for Governor.

Geographically, the district has two personalities. In the west, it takes on a suburban essence; its two largest counties – Sumner and Wilson – border Davidson County (Nashville). The primary cities there are Gallatin and Lebanon, respectively. Going eastward, the district extends to include parts of the Cumberland Plateau, and is rural. The largest city in the region is Cookeville, in Putnam County. In the south, TN-06 has a hand that reaches down to grab Coffee County, which houses the city of Manchester:

TN-06 is very red. In 2008, Sen. McCain would have beaten President Obama 66/34 there. In 2012, Gov. Romney improved to carry it 70/30. Last year, the district reddened even further. President Trump carried it by a better than 3:1 margin, limiting Secretary Clinton to only a few precincts:

Likely the most well-known recent politician this district has produced is former Vice President Al Gore (D). Before his election to the Senate, in 1984, he represented this area for four terms. For the majority of Gore’s tenure, the district was labeled TN-04, though it was numbered TN-06 for his final House race (TN gained a seat that year).

On a quick note, in 2000, President Bush would have beaten Gore 50/49 in the current version of TN-06. By contrast, President Clinton carried it easily, with 51.5% to the elder Bush’s 36.5%. In 1996, Clinton still held it, but by a closer 49/43 over Sen. Dole.

In 1984, Gore handed off the district to fellow Democrat Bart Gordon (D). Gordon, from Murfreesboro, represented the seat until his retirement in 2010, and was famously known as the ‘fastest man in Congress.’ While he was popular, he had several competitive races in the 1990’s. This was, in part, due to suburbanization; the Nashville suburbs became increasingly influential in what had previously been a more rural, Yellow Dog seat. Specifically, Williamson County, a wealthy county just south of Nashville, provided a launching pad for Republican candidates during this era. For the 2001 redistricting, Williamson County was moved out of the district; as a result, it was smooth sailing for Gordon until his retirement.

The district’s current shape actually was a result of the Republican primary to replace Gordon. While he was reelected easily on his personal brand, the district had been reddening significantly. By 2010, an open contest there was considered an almost sure-fire Republican pickup. The primary was very competitive – the top three candidates placed within 1% of each other. Diane Black (R), then a State Senator from Sumner County, finished just 335 votes over businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik (R), with State Sen. Jim Tracy (R), from Bedford County, a very close third:

As there are no runoffs in Tennessee, Black’s 30.5% was good for the nomination. However, in the largest county, Rutherford (Murfreesboro), she finished a poor third in the primary. Going forward, it could have provided a base for a primary challenger. Very conveniently for Black, with redistricting the following year, Rutherford County was removed from TN-06, which gave us the current version of the district.

So, how competitive could TN-06 get?

The last close two-party statewide race in Tennessee was back in 2006. In what turned out to be a Democratic wave year, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) honored a term limits pledge, and retired. Democrats coalesced behind Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D); despite representing a liberal Memphis seat, Ford was known as a moderate. On the GOP side, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker (R) won a competitive primary. After one of the most expensive races of the cycle, Corker won narrowly – the Democratic wave was so substantial that he was the sole non-incumbent Republican to win a Senate race in 2006.

Corker won by 3%, but would have carried the current 6th by a heftier 54/46:

Barring a Republican meltdown, something like this would probably be the ceiling for Democrats in TN-06. The counties that Ford won have only gotten redder since, while the the Nashville suburbs haven’t trended particularly well for Democrats, as comparable counties in other southern metros have.

Given that, the Republican primary will likely be the race to watch here. A potential candidate is former State Rep. Joe Carr (R). He represented Rutherford County, which again, now sits just outside the district.

In 2014, Carr ran an anti-establishment campaign for Senate; he framed himself as a Ted Cruz-esque figure, in contrast to entrenched Sen. Lamar Alexander (R). With an impressive resume at both the state and federal levels, Alexander is the type of pragmatic conservative that has historically done well in Tennessee.

Alexander was better-funded and won the primary 50% to 41%, though Carr significantly overperformed his polling. The 6th district was essentially a mirror image of the state – it went for Carr 50% to 43%:

In 2016, Carr challenged Black in the TN-06 primary. Black is more of a full throated conservative than Alexander, so there didn’t seem to be much of an appetite among Republicans to replace her; Black won the primary 2:1. For 2018, Carr was said to be considering a run for Governor, but a now-open TN-06 may look more attractive.

One candidate who has declared is State Rep. Judd Matheny (R). Matheny’s district is primarily Coffee County, the southernmost in the district. A higher-profile candidate would Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes (R); she was raised in the Nashville area, and is planning a run.

Lou Ann Zelenik could possibly try again. Black’s other rival from 2010, Jim Tracy seems less likely to run, as he would carry more baggage. With his base counties moved into TN-04, he ran there in 2014 and very narrowly lost the primary against Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R); DesJarlais was considered vulnerable due to some of his personal history. State Sen. Mark Green (R) lives just outside the district; Green was nominated as the President’s Army Secretary earlier this year, though ultimately took himself out of consideration.

Democrats are down to one legislative seat here. State Rep. Mark Windle (D) represents some of the historically Yellow Dog counties in his HD-41. The President cleared 70% in every county Windle represents. State Rep. Kevin Dunlap (D) may be another option; he lost his legislative seat in this area by about 6% last year.

All things considered, though, Republicans are essentially a lock to hold this seat.