Historically, Senate District 22 has been represented by a Democrat, until Republican Mark Green won in 2012. Now, incumbent Sen. Bill Powers, R-Clarksville, and political newcomer Ronnie Glynn, D-Clarksville, are fighting to decide whether the seat will remain red or return to blue.
Powers is no stranger to close races. He earned 53.6% to Democrat Juanita Charles’ 44.4% in the special election in 2019, and snagged 52.75% to primary challenger Doug Englen’s 47.25% earlier this year. Powers took over the seat from Green, who resigned in 2018 after winning the seat in Congress formerly held by Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
Before Green won, District 22, which is composed of Montgomery, Stewart, and Houston Counties, had been solidly Democrat. Of the past five state senators, four were Democrats. Republican Carol J. Rice served from 1993 to 1996, according to the Tennessee State Library & Archives, but otherwise it’s been noticeably blue; then-Democrat Rosalind Kurita represented District 22 for over two decades, though she returned to serve as interim senator as an Independent for the four months between Green stepping down and Powers being elected.
Glynn attributes the 2013 party flip to Democratic voter apathy in the 2012 elections. President Barack Obama was running for his second term and Democrats were “happy and lackadaisical” and didn’t show up at the polls, he says. Green won that year with 53% of the vote to Democrat Tim Barnes’ 47%.
And now, Glynn is hoping for the opposite: that the presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will turn out more Democrats, who will vote to turn District 22 back to blue.
“I know we say it all the time, but this is the election of a lifetime,” Glynn says. “This is the year, the election cycle, that is going to change the lives of all of us. I absolutely believe there will be record turnout, but we’ve got to make sure it’s a record turnout of Democrats who are going to make sure we change where we’re at.”
Glynn is a retired veteran who served in the Army for 23 years. His top issues are jobs, education, health care and veterans’ resources. Those are pretty well in line with Powers, who lists those issues on his website as well.
In the year and a half Powers has been in office, he has served on several committees, called for action on invasive fish in Tennessee waterways, and announced financial assistance for Houston County’s community hospital and Stewart County’s COVID-19 response.
Powers’s flip-flop on school vouchers could be a speed bump on his road to reelection. During the special election in 2019, Powers campaigned on a platform against Gov. Bill Lee’s school vouchers plan, a hot topic for voters. However, the day he was sworn into the state senate, he voted in favor of it. And Glynn is making sure to point that out.
“I think that people understand how important it is for our elected politicians to tell the truth and to be honest up front,” Glynn says. “And I think when they look back on what happened a year and a half ago, how integrity flew in their face, they’re not going to forget that.”
Powers did not respond to requests for comment, but he defended himself after the vote last year, saying that he learned the legislation for the school voucher plan had changed from a proposal for all of the counties in the state to just two counties, which he believed made it significantly different from its original form. He told The Leaf-Chronicle that he believed the governor “deserved to have it enacted.”
Republican primary voters didn’t see it as enough of a misstep, having chosen him as their candidate. Whether it’ll be an issue in the general election or not depends, of course, on who shows up.
Otis Sanford, a political analyst and professor at the University of Memphis, says he believes voter turnout in Tennessee will be massive, likely the highest since 1964. “But since this is very much a red state, Trump still has the upper hand in winning Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes,” Sanford says. However, if there’s unprecedented turnout in Memphis and Nashville and lower than expected turnout in rural areas, there could be a presidential upset, he says, “and that will impact Senate District 22 and other contested state races.”
Even though Tennessee is a Republican state and has voted for a Republican president since 2000, District 22 has shown by the close vote in 2019’s special election voters are open to having a Democrat represent them in the State Senate. Whether 2020 is the time and Glynn the candidate to flip the seat remains to be seen.