Two Republican primaries are already throwing sparks

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 27, 2022 9:25 AM CT | Published: April 26, 2022 8:23 PM CT
<strong>A Shelby County citizen voted early on Wednesday, April 20, at Abundant Grace Fellowship Church. Early voting&nbsp;ends Thursday, April 28.</strong> (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

A Shelby County citizen voted early on Wednesday, April 20, at Abundant Grace Fellowship Church. Early voting ends Thursday, April 28. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

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The only two contested Republican primaries in August for Shelby County seats in the Tennessee General Assembly involve challenges that could make both one-candidate, uncontested races.

The GOP primaries for state Senate District 31 and state House District 99 are in flux. One of the challenges depends on a ruling from a court, and the other depends on a ruling from Republican Party officials.

The attempts to remove candidates from the ballot highlight the competitiveness within both local parties in races with and without incumbents.

That competition comes at a time when questions about party ideology and identity reflect a divided national political identity even within both parties.


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Carpenter vs. Morrison

The immediate goal of Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Cary Vaughn was no contested primaries for his party on the May 3 county primary ballot.

“I almost did it,” Vaughn said at a March 27 fundraiser in Germantown for one of the Republican contenders in the exception — the District 4 County Commission Republican primary between incumbent Brandon Morrison and challenger Jordan Carpenter.


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Asked whether his presence at the Carpenter fundraiser was an endorsement of Carpenter — a commonly asked question for politicos not wearing a campaign sticker or in need of a yard sign — Vaughn said he had been at two recent fundraisers for Morrison.

By then, Carpenter had already survived an early attempt to remove him from the May ballot that went to the Tennessee Republican Party to be resolved.

That was an early sign of discord within local Republican ranks that has now surfaced as the ballot is tentatively set for the August state and federal primaries. The primary for local races is May 3. 

The August primary ballot disputes

The focus of the discord in the state races is the set of primaries for seats in the Tennessee General Assembly representing Shelby County’s majority Republican suburban base in a Senate and House with Republican supermajorities.

The Shelby County Election Commission approved Monday, April 25, the August ballot line-up of candidates.


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The approval, however, is “subject to political party determination” — meaning either local and state party, depending on the office, can boot candidates from their respective ballots for not being “bona fide” Republicans or Democrats.

That action could happen up until close to the June 10 mail-out of the first August ballots to those in the military and voting absentee.

Determining who is a bona fide Republican or Democrat for purposes of the primaries is usually based on which party’s primaries they voted in during past elections. It could also be determined by whether someone in the party, usually a rival primary contender or a supporter of that rival, challenges what amounts to their loyalty to the party.


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State House District 99: Mills vs. Leatherwood

Former Shelby County Republican Party chairman Lee Mills found himself challenged in the state House District 99 Republican primary, where he is again challenging incumbent Tom Leatherwood.

Mills and Leatherwood not only faced each other in the 2020 primary, they also competed for the appointment of the local party’s executive committee to be the nominee following the death of District 99 incumbent Ron Lollar just ahead of the 2018 primary.

The winner of the Republican primary wins the seat since there is no Democratic or independent opposition on the August state general election ballot.

The challenge of Mills isn’t one of those challenges to be handled by the local or state party.

It will be decided in Chancery Court after the Shelby County Election Commission voted Monday to seek a declaratory judgment from the court on the challenge.


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The challenge claims that Mills not only does not live in District 99 but also does not live in Shelby County.

Mills and his wife, County Commissioner Amber Mills representing Commission District 1, live in Arlington near the Fayette County line.

By the U.S. Census tract in place across several election cycles, which cannot cross a county line, Mills doesn’t live in Shelby County but in Fayette County, according to the challenge.

The county line is nearby and in the no man’s land between the census tract line and the county line. Mills and several hundred other people live in the area, some whose homes are bisected by the Census tract boundary. Until this election season, they voted in previous State House District 99 races.

Also between the two lines is a lot of speculation about the motives for the challenge that Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips described as “a little different and unique.”

Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told Mills in writing that he had no choice but to pursue the point after Doug Himes, the ethics counsel to the Tennessee General Assembly, pointed out the Census tract boundary didn’t match the county line.

“I don’t know the motivation. It is election season and crazy things happen in election season. I don’t think it was nefarious,” Mills told The Daily Memphian.

“Now, why Doug Himes was focused on little old Lee Mills in Shelby County, I don’t know. That would be a question to put to attorney Himes,” he said. “The person I’m running against, Tom Leatherwood, was the register of deeds for 18 years. His name is on my deed, where it says you are wholly in Shelby County.”


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Mills’ address does, indeed, appear on the website of the Shelby County Assessor of Property, and it does not appear in a similar property search in Fayette County. No part of Fayette is in Leatherwood’s district.

But Goins, in a letter to Mills obtained by The Daily Memphian dated April 18, 2022, said Mills is not eligible to run because he lives in Fayette.

“To meet the Tennessee Constitutional requirements, you must be a resident of Shelby County for one year preceding the election,” Goins wrote. “Based upon the information you provided to this office, (your house) sits in Fayette County.”

Himes, who advised the state House redistricting committee, did not respond to an email Tuesday requesting comment.


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Leatherwood does not dispute that Mills lives in the city of Arlington, but he pointed to resources from state, county and federal governments, as well as Google Earth and the real estate websites Zillow and Redfin, which all show Mills’ house in Fayette County.

“It’s clear he’s not in the district,” Leatherwood said. “Google Earth couldn’t care less about my district. Redfin couldn’t care less. … Zillow is not conspiring here.”

Leatherwood said a state staffer told him this week that the mayors and election administrators of Shelby and Fayette counties discussed the issue at a Nov. 15, 2019, meeting.

Leatherwood said he’s not fighting to keep Mills off the ballot.

“I’m fine with whatever the court determines,” he said. “I will take him serious and just run a full campaign.”

State Senate District 31: Toney vs. Taylor

In the Republican primary for the District 31 state Senate seat, Brandon Toney is fighting an effort at the party level to take him off the August ballot.

That would leave former Shelby County Election Commission chairman Brent Taylor unopposed in the August GOP primary for the seat to which Republican incumbent Brian Kelsey is not seeking re-election.

Kelsey called off his re-election bid and is awaiting trial on federal campaign finance charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.


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The winner of the primary faces Democratic nominee Ruby Powell-Dennis in November. She is unopposed in the August companion primary.

In going public with the dispute this weekend, Toney talked about a broader political struggle within the local party. It is an unusual response to what is a common occurrence, especially in one-on-one primary matchups.

Toney said the dispute amounts to Republican Party leaders trying to decide what primary voters should decide.

“(The party) wants somebody they can control and they know they can’t control me,” he said. “I don’t owe anybody anything. I am not a politician. I am just a guy who was upset with what’s going on in our country and in our state and thought we need somebody who would better represent our constituents.


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“We’re not a socialist country. We’re not a communist country,” Toney said. “To go after me and basically place somebody in the position is just sick to me. It’s disgusting.”

Toney describes himself as a “strict Constitutional conservative” who got involved in Shelby County politics with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as Trump’s co-chairman in the 8th Congressional District.

Toney and his wife met Trump when Trump campaigned in Millington in February 2016, just ahead of the Tennessee presidential primaries that year.

“I was awestruck,” he said of the encounter with Trump.

He also described his motto in the state Senate race as “bringing honesty, integrity and God back to government.”

Usually those challenged avoid broader political issues, emphasize the process and express confidence they will remain on the ballot. That was Carpenter’s public response in the County Commission primary dispute.


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It’s an approach backed by the desire of party leaders to see partisans in the various primary camps unite around the nominee once all of the votes are counted in the May county primaries as well as the August state and federal primaries.

The specific challenge in District 31, according to Toney, is that he doesn’t meet the party’s recently upgraded standards for being a bona fide Republican.

That is defined as having voted in three of the past four statewide Republican primaries or getting a waiver on that requirement from the state party’s executive committee.

That waiver is based on bona fide Republicans who vouch for a contender who doesn’t have that kind of voting record.


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In an email Sunday, April 24, to members of the state and county party executive committees, Toney said he missed some of those statewide primaries.

As a nurse practitioner, Toney went back to school for his doctorate degree while working and as his wife dealt with pre-term labor while pregnant with their now 1-year-old son.

“It would appear that the two Republican primaries I have voted in previously are not part of those required by the bylaws,” he wrote, adding he has always voted Republican.


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“Since being challenged, we have had multiple letters written for us, with some pending submission, to vouch for me as a Republican in order to fulfill the requirement that is being challenged,” he said.

Later that same day, he told The Daily Memphian that Vaughn favors Taylor and is not being impartial.

“The party chairman is not supposed to get involved in partisan races that are contested,” Toney said. “He’s supposed to be impartial. When he won’t return your phone calls and he’s going out with your opponent, he’s given your opponent money — which is against the rules — you know the deck is stacked against you.”


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Toney is referring to a $250 contribution Vaughn made to Taylor’s campaign in March, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Vaughn could not be reached for comment by The Daily Memphian. Neither could Tennessee Republican Party officials.

Topics

2022 elections 2022 state House races 2022 state Senate races Tom Leatherwood Lee Mills State House District 99 Brandon Toney Brent Taylor State Senate District 31 Doug Himes Mark Goins

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren

Abigail Warren is a lifelong resident of Shelby County and a graduate of the University of Memphis. She has worked for several local publications and covers the suburbs for The Daily Memphian.

Ian Round

Ian Round

Ian Round is The Daily Memphian’s state government reporter. He came to Tennessee from Maryland where he reported on local politics for Baltimore Brew. He earned a Master of Journalism degree from the University of Maryland in December 2019.


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