GOP front-runner lies low in open US House race in Nashville

Oct 4, 2022, 7:58 AM | Updated: 8:36 am
FILE - Andy Ogles speaks to supporters after being declared the winner in Tennessee's 5th Congressi...

FILE - Andy Ogles speaks to supporters after being declared the winner in Tennessee's 5th Congressional District Republican primary, Aug. 4, 2022, in Franklin, Tenn. Nearly two months after Ogles secured the Republican nomination in a reconfigured congressional district that cuts into left-leaning Nashville, the former rural county mayor has largely vanished from the public arena. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly two months after far-right conservative Andy Ogles secured the Republican nomination in a reconfigured congressional district that cuts into left-leaning Nashville, the former rural county mayor has largely vanished from the public arena.

In August, Ogles won a nine-way primary race for the state’s 5th Congressional District, which GOP lawmakers in Tennessee had drawn up with an eye toward flipping a seat. Ogles set a bombastic tone in his victory speech, declaring a war “to get back to honoring God and country” and proclaiming: “Liberals, we’re coming for you.”

But in the weeks since, Ogles has shied away from public events and posted sparingly to social media. The last event he shared online showed him swinging on a thrill ride at a Maury County fair last month, though he has attended a handful of Republican meet-and-greets. His campaign has posted interviews with Republican state lawmakers talking about issues in the district, but Ogles does not appear in them.

Ogles’ Democratic opponent, state Sen. Heidi Campbell, accused him of refusing invitations to seven debates and forums ahead of the November election.

The district has drawn national attention this year because of Republicans’ effort to carve up Nashville, a longtime Democratic stronghold, to squeeze out one more GOP seat in ruby-red Tennessee. The Republican candidate’s low profile has only added to concerns that the city’s next congressional representative may not take its citizens’ concerns seriously.

Campbell has been left to call out Ogles on social media over positions she thinks go further right than the district’s voters.

This week, she posted video of Ogles saying in a June GOP candidate forum in Wilson County that the “next thing we have to do is go after gay marriage” by allowing each state to decide whether marriage for same-sex couples should be legal there. Campbell’s campaign said the comment shows Ogles wants to strip more rights and freedoms from Americans, calling it an “extreme abuse of power.”

A spokesperson for Ogles did not return phone messages and emails seeking comment.

Campbell and other Democrats argue that candidates seeking elected office should not shy away from questions on where they stand.

“Voters deserve a public debate from candidates who run for Congress,” Campbell said in a statement. “Families deserve to hear why he wants to defund public schools, ban abortion nationwide and increase prescription drug costs on seniors. I guess if I had to defend his ugly record, I’d be hiding, too.”

A news outlet was able to interview Ogles on Sept. 1 at the county fair, where he didn’t directly say whether he backs a national abortion ban. He instead argued that Campbell was making “ridiculous claims” and that the U.S. Supreme Court was right to refer “the issue back to the states.” He later downplayed the need to include exemptions for rape and incest in abortion bans as a “red herring” but said he supports one to save the life of the mother.

Ogles’ low profile fits in Republican-dominated Tennessee, where clearing the GOP primary is often the main hurdle to high political office. Tennesseans haven’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly two decades, and Republicans control seven of nine congressional districts.

“The strategy is this: Don’t let anyone get to your right in the Republican primary; win that, and that’s all that matters,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

That could be more effective in the 5th than it used to be. Tennessee Republicans spent months redrawing the Nashville-based district with the hopes of gaining an additional GOP seat in Congress. The move spurred Nashville’s longtime Democratic representative, Jim Cooper, not to seek reelection, creating an open race in a newly drawn district — now snaking through six counties — that favored Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 12 percentage points in 2020.

“What Ogles is doing is basically trying to run out the clock on the election without making a mistake,” Syler said.

Campbell hopes national issues that have surfaced this year — primarily, the end of the constitutional right to abortion — mean Republicans are overestimating their odds. According to the latest campaign finance reports, she had about $247,000 cash on hand as of mid-July, while Ogles had about $283,000 available — but so far the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t added the 5th to the list of seats it plans to spend defending.

It’s not uncommon for heavily favored candidates to avoid debates. Republican Gov. Bill Lee is seeking a second term this cycle and has not yet agreed to any debates, and some Republicans in other states have sidestepped debates by pointing out that they’re often organized by news outlets derided by some in the party as biased.

Others are avoiding them in an attempt to further align with Trump, who has raised questions about whether they’re run fairly. But some Democrats are avoiding debates, too, especially in races where they are heavily favored.

While Campbell ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, Ogles participated in multiple GOP primary debates. At one July event, he criticized former House Speaker Beth Harwell — then a leading contender — for refusing to show up and answer questions on immigration.

“It’s up for us, in this election, to be heard,” he said then. “To stand and demand that we have people … show up, to be heard, to be questioned and not run away from a fight.”

___

Associated Press reporter Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.

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GOP front-runner lies low in open US House race in Nashville