If Democrat Renee Hoyos can wrest the U.S. Representative of Tennessee’s Second District seat from incumbent Tim Burchett, she will become the only non-Republican elected to represent the district since the Civil War.
She unsuccessfully ran against Burchett in 2018. Undaunted, Hoyos is trying to convince Republican and Independent voters to change their minds and flip the district.
That will not be easy.
“This may be the only congressional district in America that has never sent a Democrat to Congress,” said Victor Ashe, a former state legislator and past mayor of Knoxville. Ashe is a keen political observer of Tennessee politics who served as the United States ambassador to Poland from 2004 to 2009, under the administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama.
“Everyone around here knows Burchett,” Ashe said. “He’s a moderate and he has not mentioned Trump in the past six months. He wants to hold on to the moderate voters. He is appealing to Republicans like me, who didn’t — and won’t — vote for Trump.”
Hoyos disagrees and said Burchett is a big Trump supporter who tweets about him often.
Ashe proudly notes that the Second District is different from the rest of the state.
“This area stayed loyal to the Union during the Civil War,” he said. “In those days, the so-called ‘Mountain Republicans’ wanted no part of Central and Western Tennessee.”
He said he will be watching the Burchett-Hoyos race closely.
Burchett, who was mayor of Knox County from 2010 until 2018 when he was elected to Congress, is a well-known, popular figure in the community.
Burchett’s office declined multiple requests for interviews.
According to his website, https://www.burchettforcongress.com/ he supports term limits for politicians, tax reduction, national security and is wary of the United Nations, China and Russia. He supports Donald Trump’s immigration efforts, wants to increase the rights of gun owners and supports health care reform.
Burchett serves on the House Foreign Affairs, House Budget and the House Small Business committees. He is frequently on Twitter, reporting on actions taken in the House.
On March 30, after learning that nine people “in our community” had taken their own lives over the Covid-19 virus, he made an unusual offer on Twitter.
“I know everyone is under a lot of pressure,” he said, while sitting outside on steps wearing a casual polo shirt. “If you feel like you are going to hurt yourself or someone else, give me a call and we will just talk. If I can’t help you, I’ll refer you to someone else.”
The video gave a phone number he said was his private cell phone number. It is undetermined how many took him up on his offer. Calls to the number now go to voicemail.
His challenger, Hoyos, grew up in Northern California earning two master’s degrees in avian science and agricultural management from the University of California at Davis. After graduation, she worked at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center for California in their Natural Resources Center.
In 2003, she moved to Knoxville and became executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, a position she still holds.
According to her website, https://hoyosforcongress.com/, she supports increasing the minimum wage, lowering prescription drug costs, protecting people with pre-existing conditions who are trying to buy insurance, “common sense” gun laws, environmental reforms and improvement of our system of education.
The Burchett Background
Burchett has a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Tennessee, where his father was a popular dean of students. His political climb began in 1994 when he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he served until 1998 when he was elected to the state senate succeeding Clyde “Bud” Gilbert. His biggest fight for that seat was in the Republican primary among seven other candidates. He won the primary, defeating Jimmy Matlock by 47,914 to 35,845. After three terms in the senate, he was elected the mayor of Knox County in 2010. He was mayor until 2018 when he successfully ran for the U.S. Congress.
Burchett, is a resident of Knoxville, where he ran a truck and trailer business.
The district in review
The population of the second district is 740,182, which breaks down as almost 89% white and 6% black. Four percent of the population is Hispanic, according to Ballotpedia, with a small percentage of Asians and Native Americans. Most of the population (about 74%) lives in and around Knoxville.
The biggest employers in the district are the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In 2018, Burchett won 172,856 votes and Hoyos received 86,668. None of the other four Independent candidates on the ticket broke a thousand votes.
While that may sound like a big victory for the Republicans, at 33 percent of the votes for the Democratic candidate, it’s by far the smallest defeat over Democrats in that district going back to 2000, the year there was no Democratic candidate at all.
Typically, the Democratic candidate rarely receives less than 25 percent of the popular vote in the district.
Hoyos noted that Tennessee is a solid Republican state and Democrats must fight hard to succeed.
“If this were a competitive district it would be different,” she said. “But there is not a single district in the state that’s considered competitive.”
Ashe is familiar with both candidates, and though he respects Hoyos, he believes she has little chance to win.
“I was on the Clean Water Board where she is director of the board,” he said. “She is smart and very active. She’s also running a very good campaign. When she ran against Burchett in 2018, she got more votes than any other Democrat running for Congress. But she still lost.”
He said Hoyos will give Burchett a run for his money.
“I see no evidence that it will be a close race,” he said. “I think she will do a little better this year than last time, especially in Knoxville, but I don’t see how she will get people voting for Trump to vote for her,” he continued. “But I think her support will fade further out from the city. She would do better focusing on local issues, not trying to challenge Trump and his base.”
On Burchett: “Everyone around here knows Burchett.He’s a moderate and he has not mentioned Trump in the past six months. He wants to hold on to the moderate voters. He is appealing to Republicans like me, who didn’t — and won’t — vote for Trump.
On Hoyos: “She is smart and very active. She’s also running a very good campaign. When she ran against Burchett in 2018, she got more votes than any other Democrat running for Congress.”
The Hoyos Strategy
As if reading Ashe’s mind, Hoyos said that’s exactly what she has been doing.
She is working with a small army of about 100 volunteers trying to get out the vote. She said her secret weapon is to reach disenfranchised voters who have stopped voting. She believes they are the key to victory, as opposed to trying to convince diehard Republicans to switch sides.
“I get on the phone bank with the volunteers as we reach deep into Republican territory, to people who have voted Republican in the past but no longer feel like they are Republicans,” she said. “They are just tired of all the drama under Trump, whose idea is to demoralize people into accepting him. We are fighting that.”
Her team also reaches out to the huge number of Tennesseans from all parties who simply do not vote and convince them of the importance of this election. Tennessee has one of the highest percentage of eligible voters who don’t vote in the entire country, which she believes shows frustration with the process.
“We find out why they don’t vote, help them decide to do it,” she said. “We’ll drive them to the polls if necessary, whatever it takes.”
Her conversations with the electorate convinced her the biggest problem they face deals with health care.
“It’s what we hear all the time, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak,” she said. “People say the cost of health care is killing them, along with the cost of insurance and prescription drugs. I would like to see people get full medical coverage and some measure of fairness. How can an MRI cost $500 in one hospital and the same procedure $1,500 in another hospital not far away? No other industry behaves like this. We have to get a handle on the problem.”
She said the House of Representatives has come up with solutions that would have helped, but it ended there.
“Everything they did was blocked in the Senate,” she said, “which is why we need to elect more Democrats in the Senate and the House.”
Hoyos is endorsed by the Communications Workers of America, the Tennessee Federation of Women, Women for the Win, the Sierra Club and Moms Demand Action and others.
A bluer district?
Hoyos says the district is turning more Democratic every day and she hopes to push that trend.
She said she analyzed the data after her failed 2018 run for Congress and was pleased at how much she moved the needle.
“Then I went back and examined the elections over the past 10 years, they have been trending toward Democrats since 2012, it’s a drumbeat towards Democrats. I don’t see this in other districts in the state and now I believe that we are in a position to turn Democrat in an area filled with unenthusiastic Republicans.”
She quoted polls that put her even with Burchett, within the margin of error.
Mary Mancini, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, shares her optimism.
“She is correct,” she said. “The demographics of that area has been changing along with people’s attitudes,” she said. “There are many folks out there who reflexively voted Republican in the past four years in national elections and in the past 10 years in state elections who are no longer doing so. They are starting to see the Republican’s true colors.”
She said Hoyos is “doing all the right things” and has proven to be an excellent speaker and fundraiser.
“She has raised more money than her opponent in the last three cycles,” she said. “She speaks to people, unlike the Republicans in Nashville and Washington who decline to talk to their people or the press. She would make an outstanding House Representative.”
Knoxville City Councilwoman Lauren Rider sits on a non-partisan seat in a traditionally Republican city, but she says the city is turning more purple these days.
“It’s important for people to have a choice in an election and not vote strictly on party politics,” she said. “Renee is a good candidate and it’s important that someone steps up and challenges in a race. It’s better to have a voter decide on the issues, rather than only by the party.”
In 1999, Burchett stepped into the national spotlight by sponsoring a bill that allowed Tennesseans to gather and eat roadkill, which amused people in northern American cities.
In truth, this was already legal in the state. His bill made it easier by eliminating the rule that said people first had to alert game officials before scooping up dead animals for dinner.
More recently, in mid-September the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill he authored that would allow small businesses to have “fair access to Small Business Administration resources to help them grow.”
Upon the introduction to the bill, which now goes before the U.S. Senate, Burchett said he knows how important it is to keep small businesses alive.
Burchett also recently asked the United States Department of Homeland Security Inspector General to investigate whistleblower reports that alleged medical misconduct, including forced hysterectomies, at the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) facility in Irwin County, Ga.
“If true, this allegation is a serious human rights violation by the DHS medical employees,” he said in a news release. “Federal employees and contractors are given the public’s trust to serve the best interests of our country, but they must be removed if they willingly abuse their position in our government.”
No matter how hard the candidates try, or don’t try, to make the race about Tennessee and not about President Trump, his presence is always in the background.
“The anti-Trump people are committed enthused, energized,” said Ashe. “They are out to help the whole ticket, up and down, but it won’t be enough.”