A Fight for the Outside Lane in Tennessee

Veteran lawmakers Stephen Fincher and Marsha Blackburn are both portraying themselves as antiestablishment candidates for Senate.

Former Rep. Stephen Fincher
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Oct. 23, 2017, 8:29 p.m.

Everyone wants to run as the outsider in 2017. In Tennessee, it’s not so simple.

On Sunday, former Rep. Stephen Fincher, a seventh-generation cotton farmer and gospel-music singer, announced he would take on Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative firebrand, in the GOP primary for Senate.

Already, the former three-term congressman and the eight-term congresswoman are trying to brand the other as out of touch with Tennessee, attacking the few differences in their right-wing records. And while President Trump’s approval rating has fallen in the state, the Republican primary candidates are unsurprisingly blaming what’s less popular—Congress—for the dysfunction in Washington, rather than the “Drain the Swamp” president.

In a phone interview on Monday, Fincher said that he left Congress this year because his brother suffered a broken back, and he had to make the decision to stay in Congress or go home and help the family farm. But after Republican Sen. Bob Corker announced he would retire, and his brother’s health returned, Fincher took a 10-day listening tour from Mountain City to Memphis in October to gauge support for a run for higher office.

“People see what they get with me,” he said. “I’m just a farmer from Frog Jump. I’m just a concerned citizen that wants to come and hopefully represent our state and all Tennesseans.”

This election cycle, Senate Republican primaries across the country are shaping up to be proxy wars between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart News and former White House chief strategist. But in Tennessee, allies of both men have come out to support Blackburn, who has a long conservative record and is a strong supporter of the president. Blackburn is one of the most influential Republican women in the House, in a party well aware of its lack of female representation, and a frequent cable news guest. She’s a fierce antiabortion advocate who led an investigation into Planned Parenthood.

While he doesn’t have Bannon’s support, Fincher seemed open to some of his reported demands, which include opposing McConnell and changing the rules of the Senate from requiring 60 votes on most legislation to 50.

When asked if he would support McConnell as leader, Fincher said, “I’m going to do what Tennesseans want.” And when asked about the rule change, which would fundamentally alter how the Senate operates and make it into a more partisan institution, Fincher replied that he was “very much leaning toward going to a simple majority vote.

“We have got to get some things passed,” Fincher said, naming Obamacare replacement and tax reform as top priorities.

The differences between Fincher and Blackburn are more about tone than substance. Both are antiabortion, pro-Second Amendment, and against gay marriage.

“We have a history of sending good, responsible, pragmatic, problem solvers—solutions-oriented people—to Washington to represent our home state,” said Fincher of Tennessee senators. “We’re both very conservative as far as spending and fiscal issues,” he later acknowledged of his opponent.

“I know the Left calls me a wing nut or a knuckle-dragging conservative,” Blackburn said in her announcement video. “And you know what? I say that’s all right. Bring it on.”

But after The Washington Post and 60 Minutes reported that Blackburn had cosponsored a bill that hurt the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after opioid distributors while receiving $120,000 from the pharmaceutical industry, Fincher has gone on the attack, calling the opioid epidemic the “No. 1 issue” Tennesseans told him about on his listening tour. (Fincher, like his colleagues, did not object at the time to the legislation, which passed the House by unanimous consent.)

Characterizing constituents’ concerns, Fincher said, “We want somebody that understands this and not go to Washington and be misled by not listening to Tennesseans.”

Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for Blackburn, didn’t directly respond to Fincher’s comments on the opioid issue, but criticized his questioning of her overall record, knocking Fincher for supporting legislation promoting the Export-Import Bank.

“While Nancy Pelosi’s favorite Republican was busy sponsoring legislation to advance corporate welfare, Congressman Blackburn has fought against big government spending, fought to protect our Second Amendment rights and the unborn,” said Bozek. “Marsha is a real conservative with a record of accomplishment.”

Before Fincher entered the race, Blackburn was the clear Republican favorite for a job that hadn’t been held by a Democrat in decades, facing only conservative activist Andy Ogles.

But Fincher’s announcement changed the dynamics of the race, according to Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer.

“Congresswoman Blackburn was the presumed front-runner, but now I think that has to be called into question,” Geer said.

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