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Rare open congressional seat attracts 16 GOP hopefuls

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI
Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — A rare opening for a U.S. House seat in northeastern Tennessee has attracted a wide swath of Republican candidates hoping to secure a district and region known for long-tenured representatives.
Republican voters during the Aug. 6 primary will choose from among 16 hopefuls looking to replace incumbent U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, who announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t pursue a sixth term.
Roe, 74, is one of just eight people — all Republicans — to have represented the district in nearly 100 years. While Tennessee is known for long-serving members in most of its congressional seats, District 1 has the unique distinction of being home to two of Tennessee’s longest-serving House members ever.
B. Carroll Reece held the seat for all but six years from 1921 and 1961; Jimmy Quillen served from 1963 to 1997.
The last time a Democrat held the seat was during the Civil War, meaning the GOP primary is expected to decide the election, though there is one contender for the Democratic nomination.
Top Republican candidates include Diana Harshbarger, a pharmacist from Kingsport running for political office for the first time. She reported having more than $1 million in campaign cash according to the latest federal election filings, although the overwhelming majority of that money came from loans made by Harshbarger.
That money has allowed her to spend big on media buys, mailers and other campaign advertisements to help boost her name recognition.
Harshbarger has raised eyebrows, however, after declaring in an ad that she supports putting “America first by holding China accountable” for the coronavirus pandemic. The ad neglected to mention that her husband, Bob Harshbarger, was sentenced to four years in federal prison in 2013 for distributing a misbranded Chinese-made drug that was given to kidney dialysis patients.
Diana Harshbarger has countered that she had no involvement with her husband’s company at the time. She later took over as the registered agent for his American Inhalation Medication Specialists Inc. after he was sentenced. The company dissolved in 2018.
Longtime state Sen. Rusty Crowe, from Johnson City, is another top contender in the 1st Congressional District primary race. The 72-year-old Crowe has served in the GOP-dominant Statehouse since 1990. He won the legislative seat as a write-in Democratic candidate the first time. He later joined the Republican caucus in 1996. While the move ticked off the Democratic Party, voters have overwhelmingly reelected Crowe ever since.
Crowe, a longtime paid consultant with Ballad Health, has raised more than $350,000 to date from mostly Tennessee-based contributions, including from several of his fellow Republican state senators. Senate Speaker Randy McNally has endorsed Crowe, who had about $220,000 in cash remaining as of the end of June.
Other state lawmakers making a bid for the seat are Reps. David Hawk, from Greeneville, and Timothy Hill, from Blountville.
Hill has been endorsed by conservative advocacy group Club for Growth as well as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. He’s raised nearly $150,000 but has spent almost all of it, leaving him with almost $5,300 at the end of the reporting period.
Most recently, Club for Growth released a television ad attacking Harshbarger.
The House Freedom Fund — a political committee financed by hard-right conservatives in Congress’ House Freedom Caucus — has also spent nearly $36,000 in bundled contributions supporting Hill.
Hawk has raised $52,250 since throwing his hat in the race. He still had nearly $30,000 on hand after spending $22,800 this period.
Hawk has said he’s planning on retaining his state legislative seat should he not win the congressional race and will appear on the ballot twice — which is allowed in Tennessee.
Two previous mayors are also running to replace Roe: Former Kingsport Mayor John Clark and former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden.
Clark has raised $440,000 since launching his campaign bid, with $292,000 of that coming from loans he made to himself. He had about $27,000 remaining at the end of the reporting period.
Darden had raised close to $310,000 as of June, with $55,000 coming from loans to himself. He has $165,000 in cash remaining.
Knoxville dermatologist Josh Gapp, meanwhile, has loaned his campaign $540,000 and collected $1,230 in contributions. He’s spent almost $511,000 and had nearly $30,000 remaining.
On the Democratic ballot, Blair Walsingham is the only active candidate campaigning for the seat. Walsingham is a U.S. Air Force veteran who has been endorsed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.