Amid hoops, hollers and whistles, a triumphant Courtney Rogers took the stage as the newly minted Republican standard-bearer for Tennessee’s 45th House District.
“Thank you very much. Honestly, this process was too big for me alone,” said Rogers in what was a brief victory speech interrupted by a prayer held on the dais with her family.
Rogers bested incumbent House GOP Caucus chair Debra Maggart 4,643 to 3,444, maintaining a double-digit lead as returns from the Sumner County district trickled in.
The veritable blowout capped a contentious primary battle in which Rogers, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force and a tea party member, successfully unseated Maggart in what has been largely characterized by political observers as a proxy battle for national Second Amendment interests.
“She heeded the call, and she went about the business of [figuring out] how to do what others were asking her to do,” said Roger’s campaign manager, Jeff Hartline. “We had a million-dollar candidate, and they didn’t.”
The success of Roger’s dark horse candidacy cements a narrative that the NRA is winning a war against state lawmakers who don’t tow the group’s increasingly zealous hard-line pro-gun orthodoxy in recent years. A handful of states including Tennessee had rejected a slew of NRA-sponsored bills in the past year, prompting action and ire from the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action.
The ILA targeted Maggart when she joined with moderate House Republicans in their refusal to support the powerful gun lobby’s controversial “guns in parking lots bill” during the last legislative session. As of late June, the NRA-ILA spent more than $75,000 on ads both denouncing Maggart and supporting her opponent, including billboards that inaccurately compared her track record on gun rights with President Barack Obama — a total equal to more than half of Maggart’s war chest at the time.
John Harris, president of the Tennessee Firearms Association, was on hand for the festivities. A vocal critic of Maggart, Harris said that the money poured into the race by the NRA was “specifically intended to be an example” of what happens when politicians take gun-owners — and their lobbies — for granted.
“The Second Amendment is the best litmus test of what a true conservative is,” Harris told The City Paper. “If you won’t stand up and support the Second Amendment, you’re not really a constitutional conservative on other issues.”
A spokesman for the Maggart campaign told The City Paper the representative had called Rogers to concede the race. Maggart was not available for comment.
Rogers will face Democrat Jeanette Jackson in the general election this November.
In the night’s other marquee race, Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black fended off repeat challenger Lou Ann Zelenik in the state’s 6th Congressional District primary. What was a razor-thin race in 2010, when Black edged out Zelenik by just 283 votes, ended up as a landslide victory for the incumbent this year who won by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
In the final weeks of the increasingly nasty personal grudge match, Black faced attack ads from two super-PACs funded entirely by Nashville-based venture capitalist and former Zelenik staffer Andrew Miller. A message left for Miller, who was also among the hosts of a fundraiser for Rogers, was not immediately returned. Despite Black’s conservative record, Miller’s PACs and the Zelenik campaign hit the incumbent repeatedly with the specious claim that she had voted to fund Obamacare.
“Our overwhelming victory in this race is a lesson that you can prevail when you work hard, tell the truth and stay true to your principles, even in the face of lies and vicious personal attacks,” said Black, in a campaign release trumpeting her victory. “Let us keep that in mind as we move into the general election season.”
Owing to the bitterly personal years-old feud between the two, Zelenik announced her concession on television but apparently did not call Black, who was later informed of the news on air.
The primary victory sends Black back to congress, as she will run unopposed in November’s general election.
In Davidson County, Democratic incumbent Rep. Mary Pruitt finally fell in House District 58 after facing a series of challenges from within her own party in past years. In a race that wasn’t decided until the last batch of returns, Pruitt lost to Harold Love Jr. by just 41 votes.
The son of civil rights leader and longtime state Rep. Harold Love Sr., Love credited a “combination of new school and old school campaigning” for his victory. His team utilized Facebook, he said, as well as events called “Conversations with Love” held with constituents at local barbershops.
Pruitt had not yet heard the final results when reached by The City Paper but offered best wishes to Love.
“The people have had the opportunity to make their choice and the majority votes win, so that’s about all I can say,” she said. “I’m pretty sure he’ll do a good job.”
An official at the Davidson County Election Commission told The City Paper there were not enough provisional ballots to change the outcome of the race.
There are no Republicans running in the district.
In other races:
Click here or a complete list of results from state races.