Martin beats Smiley, Atwater in Democratic primary for governor

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 05, 2022 12:32 PM CT | Published: August 04, 2022 10:39 PM CT
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Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor whose experience treating critically ill COVID patients during the worst of the pandemic inspired him to run for office, defeated Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. and activist Carnita Atwater of Memphis in the Democratic primary for governor Thursday, Aug. 4.

The latest results from the Tennessee Secretary of State, as of 11:38 p.m., show Martin winning 96,505 votes, or 40.82%; Smiley earned 36.96% of the vote and Atwater had 22.22%.

If the results hold, Martin, who declared victory in Nashville, will face incumbent Gov. Bill Lee in the November election. Lee ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

“It’s a fun night for our campaign,” he said at an 11 p.m. press conference near the State Capitol in Nashville. “We hear your message loud and clear: you’re upset that Bill Lee has failed you all.”

Smiley said it was too soon to call and said Martin should retract his statement.

“Our campaign has ran a respectable race,” Smiley tweeted at 11:16 p.m. “Shelby County is still reporting Election Day votes. With that, (Martin) should retract his statement until all votes are counted.”

Asked if he made the right choice in declaring victory before all votes were counted, Martin said, “Yes, it was the right decision. The campaign team is confident in the vote that is remaining out there.”

Martin gained visibility after The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville published a long first-person account of his work in the COVID unit at a Sumner County hospital. He performed especially well with rural Democrats, while Smiley performed better in the cities.

Tennessee’s oldest-ever lawmaker faces much younger challenger

“We do believe the path to the governor’s office passes through rural Tennessee,” Martin said.

He said he would support teachers and librarians, attempt to legalize marijuana and support abortion rights. He thanked Atwater and Smiley, and said he wants to work with them to unify Democrats in the fall.

“(Lee) has done nothing to deal with the health crisis in Tennessee,” Martin said, speaking not just of COVID but hospital closures and medical bankruptcies. “The ‘fend for yourself’ response led to the results we thought it would.”

Smiley won Shelby County by a wide margin. The Shelby County Election Commission reported he won 44,877 votes, more than 60%. Martin won 16,148 and Atwater won 11,557.

On the campaign trail, he reiterated the fact that he had visited all of Tennessee’s 95 counties during the primary while Smiley’s campaign was viewed as more focused on Memphis.

Smiley pitched himself as the candidate who could energize the Democratic Party’s progressive base, particularly Black voters. Smiley is a native Memphian who became a lawyer after playing collegiate and semi-pro basketball.

There were few substantive policy differences between Martin and Smiley; both support expanding health care, passing gun safety laws, increasing education funding and ending private school vouchers.

‘It’s not about policy, it’s about personality and effectiveness’

Lee, who won just under 60% of the vote in 2018, is heavily favored to win reelection in November.

A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Tennessee since 2006, when former Gov. Phil Bredesen was reelected, but progressives galvanized by the US Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to ban abortion think they might have a shot.

Martin’s fundraising was much stronger than Smiley’s or Atwater’s, but is only a fraction of what Lee has on hand. Martin had $66,097 on hand at the end of the second fundraising quarter after spending $239,099 — almost all of what he had.

Shelby County GOP state office candidates outnumbered, but outspending Democrats

Smiley spent $53,802 during the same period and ended up with just $4,582. Atwater had less than $80 on hand after spending $2,148.

Meanwhile, Lee spent $219,567 — without a primary challenger — and still had $4,458,345 on hand.

If Martin pulls off the upset in November, it will still be difficult for Democrats to achieve many of their goals, since Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Incumbents sweep

Meanwhile, incumbent lawmakers at the state and federal level all raised more money than their challengers and all won their primaries.

State Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis), who has served in the legislature since the mid-1990s and turned 93 on Thursday, defeated business owner Will Richardson.

She had 4,853 votes before midnight, according to the Shelby County Election Commission, compared to Richardson’s 1,325.

State Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis) won his primary against Barbara Farmer-Tolbert, despite an arrest last month for theft and assault after an argument with an ex-boyfriend.

Harris — who is the youngest lawmaker in the General Assembly and was one of the first two openly gay members in the legislature’s history — won by a narrower margin than Cooper. He got 3,812 votes, while Farmer had 2,949.

“I’m humbled to be the people’s choice again!” Harris told The Daily Memphian. “I’ll continue to listen, empower and serve just as I always have. This has been an election full of adversities and distractions, my colleagues worked hard to draw me out during redistricting, strangers decided to use my personal life to make themselves feel better about their run, but we excelled beyond all of this because our campaign always focuses on the main agenda — the people first, always.”

Shelby County lost one state House seat during this year’s redistricting process. Most of Harris’s district was divided into nearby districts, while his home was drawn into the district that Sen. London Lamar (D-Memphis) represented before she was appointed to the upper chamber.

Lamar, who was appointed to the Senate in March after the ouster of former state Sen. Katrina Robinson, won her first Senate primary against two other Democrats.

She won easily, with nearly 12,000 votes, while neither Rhonnie Brewer nor Marion Latroy Alexandria-Williams Jr. got more than 3,000.

“Thank you, District 33 for your support and for keeping me as your State Senator,” Lamar wrote in a text message. “I am humbled that over 70% of early voting results show my district thought that I was the right person for the job. I promise to continue to fight for Memphis and to work to create better legislation that will positively impact our communities.”

She faces Republican Frederick Tappan in the general election. Tappan has had success fundraising, but Lamar is expected to win in the heavily Democratic district.

And U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (R-Germantown) easily fended off a far-right challenge from Bob Hendry in the congressional district that includes most of West Tennessee, including some conservative corners of Shelby County.

Before Shelby County even reported its first votes, Kustoff declared victory, confident he had the nomination based on the support from other counties.

Among his challengers was Collierville resident Bob Hendry, who claimed he was more conservative than the sitting congressman.

Kustoff said his record speaks for itself, and the voters supported that belief, giving him the decisive victory. About 100 supporters and friends gathered at the Holiday Inn Memphis cheering when Kustoff made his way on stage.

“When I vote, I have to think about, ‘what are the wishes of my constituents? What’s in the best interest of the county?” he said after the event. “When I vote, those things line up. I’m proud of my record, of my legislative record.”

He believes in November, Republicans could have the majority in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

“We’re going to be able to lead on so many important issues,” he said of the possible change. “Whether it’s the economy, inflation, crime, the border — to me that’s what it’s all about.”

He said the possible shift is motivating as he looks toward November.

“The country is in tough shape right now because we are under one-party rule with Biden, Pelosi and Schumer,” he said. “But it’s clear the voters are not happy with the direction of the economy and inflation are the number one issues. Pretty soon, we’re gonna be offering real solutions to people all across the country.”

Abigail Warren contributed reporting.


Jason Martin JB Smiley Jr. Carnita Atwater Bill Lee London Lamar Barbara Cooper Will Richardson Torrey Harris August 2022 election David Kustoff Bob Hendry
Ian Round

Ian Round

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


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