Tennessee’s 5th District is the only seat in the state without an incumbent running in a congressional race this year.
The district, which has been represented by Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, used to contain all of Davidson County. But after redistricting, it now has parts of Williamson and Wilson counties and all of Marshall, Murray and Lewis counties.
Those newer additions are all more rural and Republican-leaning. Here’s a look at the large roster of conservative candidates hoping to flip the 5th.
If money talks, then Republican Kurt Winstead’s campaign fund is screaming. He’s raised $900,000 this cycle, the most of any of the nine GOP candidates running in the 5th District. The retired Tennessee National Guardsman likes to reference his time in the military on the campaign trail, including a time he toured a hospital in Iraq.
“In the hospital, the little, young boy came up to me. He started hitting my right arm where I had an American flag on my sleeve. He was smiling. He was giddy. You can tell he was excited,” said Winstead, speaking at the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.
“So, I asked the interpreter what was going on with this kid,” Winstead. “She said, ‘That young boy believes that you and that American flag stand for freedom and hope.'”
He was one of just four GOP candidates at that recent event. Notably missing were two other top fundraisers this cycle: Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and Tennessee’s first female House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Harwell has raised a little over $800,000 so far. Ogles has raised $200,000, and he’s gotten an additional boost from Super PACs — pouring more than half a million into the race on his behalf.
Far-right positioning and the Trump effect
So, why are there so many Republicans vying for a district that’s been a Democratic stronghold for decades?
“We have this race rated as ‘safe Republican,’ which means that Republicans are basically prohibitive favorites here,” said J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
This redrawn district carved Nashville into three districts and diluted the power of Black and brown voters. Coleman says, on paper, it’s an easy grab for Republicans compared to the old district.
“The new 5th — instead of going to Biden by 20 points, it goes to Trump by 11 or 10.”
And, former President Donald Trump could be a big factor in this race. He hasn’t endorsed any of the current candidates, but in January, he endorsed Morgan Ortagus, who worked in the Trump administration. Ortagus has since been removed from the ballot by the state party.
After Ortagus was kicked out of the race, she endorsed Kurt Winstead and joined his campaign. That set up the sort of political jockeying that now has party insiders wondering who might get Trump’s blessing.
“Any endorsement he would make, even at this late stage of the game, would be a huge game-changer,” said Rick Williams, a conservative political activist and former Davidson County co-chair for Trump’s presidential campaign.
With or without the former president’s blessing, loyalty to Trumpism is a huge theme in this race. Several candidates still float Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election. And, when candidates were asked about impeaching President Joe Biden at a debate in Maury County, four of them said they would.
One of those was Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles.
“This administration is a criminal enterprise,” Ogles said. “Biden, Pelosi, Mayorkas — they all need to be impeached and then tried for treason.”
Ogles has tried to position himself further right to Harwell and Winstead. Ogles recently filed a defamation lawsuit against a conservative PAC and alleged that Winstead was connected to it.
But, not every candidate is competing for Trump’s support — like, Harwell.
“I respect a lot of what Trump did, but his endorsement is not what I want,” Harwell said. “I want the endorsement of people of the 5th Congressional District.”
Harwell is considered the most established candidate, having won five of the six political races in her career so far.
Unexpected candidates still could rise to the top
But, while the top three — Ogles, Harwell and Winstead — duke it out for frontrunner status, there are a few “dark horse” possibilities who could surprise insiders by coming out on top.
One is Natisha Brooks, the lone Black candidate, who’s raised about $100,000 and has tried to differentiate her thoughts on education from other Republicans in the race.
“Even though I’m a Republican, I am not against public schools,” Brooks said. “I’m actually for getting the correct funding for a public school, so children can be successful.”
Another candidate, Jeff Beierlein, hasn’t raised as much money, but he’s won over some Republicans with his resume as an army combat veteran and healthcare executive.
“Sure, I’ve never ran before. But, I don’t run from anything, at the same time,” Beierlein said.
Unlike some in this race, Beierlein is pro-vaccine, though he draws the line at vaccine mandates — another way of threading the needle on a sensitive issue for conservative voters.
There’s also Robby Starbuck, a write-in candidate. But he’s been able to raise more than $400,000 and has earned the endorsement of conservative firebrands like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Candace Owens.
The four others on the ballot — Tres Wittum, Stewart Parks, Geni Batchelor and Timothy Lee — don’t have big campaign coffers, and political commentator Rick Williams is blunt about their chances at this point.
“To be frank, the other five are just taking up space,” said Williams, who also included Natisha Brooks in his list. “If you’re not on TV with a serious TV campaign, then you’re probably not even in the hunt.”
But, Miles Coleman, the UVA pollster, says when a field is flooded with candidates, it could make for a very close race.
“One thing that’s a little unique about Tennessee is, unlike a lot of states in the South, they don’t have runoffs,” Coleman said.
So, in this large field, the winner could win with a very low percentage and go on to the general election in November. And, if they win in the general election, Republicans will have gained another seat in the House, inching them closer to their goal of retaking the majority in Congress.