NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In northeastern Tennessee, two women have emerged as the top candidates vying for the state's only open congressional district in hopes of securing the seat that hasn't swung for a Democrat since the Civil War.
First-time political candidates Republican Diana Harshbarger and Democrat Blair Walsingham are facing off in a race that's been largely overshadowed by not only the presidential election, but also by the bid over the state's open U.S. Senate seat.
However, whoever wins Tennessee's 1st Congressional District will remain notable because the winner is slated to become the first woman to secure the seat in a regular election.
The only other woman to hold the seat was Louise Reece, who was picked to finish the rest of her husband's term when he died in 1961. It was the only time a special election has been held in the congressional district.
Additionally, the win will also result in a woman joining Tennessee’s nine-member U.S. House delegation, which is currently dominated by men.
The congressional seat opened up this year after Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Roe announced he would retire and not seek a seventh term.
That decision spurred a wide range of GOP candidates to throw their hat in for the seat, with many believing the primary election would be the most competitive hurdle in the heavily GOP district.
Harshbarger eventually emerged victorious in the primary after spending nearly $1 million of her money to compete with other well-known politicians who had hoped to snag the GOP nomination.
Harshbarger, a 60-year-old pharmacist from Kingsport, has since continued to outspend her Democratic opponent while declining to participate in debates or forums with Walsingham in the final build up to the Nov. 3 election.
Since her primary win, President Donald Trump and Roe have both endorsed her.
Harshbarger has said she'll focus on providing more economic development for her constituents if she wins, however she has demurred when asked why such opportunities haven't previously been made available when Republicans have historically been in control of the region.
She's also come out in favor of term limits for all federal-level elected offices, saying that she believes anyone elected to the House of Representatives should serve no longer than eight years.
“To get things done, there’s too many career politicians that are more concerned about their own careers than the people who put them there,” Harshbarger said.
Additionally, Harshbarger said her experience as a pharmacist will make her a valuable asset in Congress to push for more affordable health care but she has held off from joining other Republicans in fully endorsing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — a situation some Democrats fear might be the outcome of an upcoming Supreme Court hearing on the law that gives more than 20 million Americans health insurance coverage.
“It’s very humbling, I’m honored to be a woman who has been chosen as the Republican nominee,” Harshbarger said. “I didn’t win because I’m a woman, I won as a woman... as a woman and as a conservative woman, there’s not that many of us in Congress.
Meanwhile, Walsingham — a 32-year-old Air Force veteran turned small business owner — has posted more modest fundraising numbers after her Democratic rivals dropped out in the primary.
She acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the difficulty of appealing to a voter base in the 1st Congressional District that’s long been resistant to supporting Democrats.
But Walsingham says she's had success talking to residents who plan on voting for Trump who are still unsure how they'll vote on certain down-ballot races.
“We agree on way more than what they thought they would at the beginning of the conversation,” she said. “It's not necessarily because they like everything on my platform, it's not because we agree on everything, but they know I'm listening and that's the job."
Like Harshbarger, Walsingham said improving her district's economy is a top priority. The Democrat noted that she doesn't have cell service at her home, which is a common problem in her neighborhood that also struggles to get access to broadband.
Walsingham has been endorsed by former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, with the two of them both coming out in favor of a universal basic income.
Shortly after winning the GOP nomination in August, Harshbarger told local news outlets that she wouldn't participate in a debate due to remarks Walsingham had made about law enforcement. Harshbarger said Walsingham “blatantly and openly defied our policemen and women" without providing specifics.
Walsingham has pushed backed, releasing a “re-fund our police” policy proposal that pushes for more mental health services for law enforcement and allowing other specialists to respond to emergency calls on mental health or drug addiction.
Meanwhile, incumbents in Tennessee's remaining eight congressional districts are not expected to lose their seats. Just two of the districts are held by Democrats.
Follow Kimberlee Kruesi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/kkruesi.