(Photo: City of Chattanooga Facebook)
Parts of Hamilton County will be returning to the polls this September to elect the late Rep. Mike Carter’s successor. Carter is survived by his wife, Joan, who was appointed to hold the seat until the special election but chose not to enter the race herself. Whoever is elected by the voters of District 29 will serve out the remainder of this term in the General Assembly and the latter half of the House of Representatives typical session.
District 29 stretches from the semi-rural area around Sales Creek down the eastern border of the county to the suburban areas of Ooltewah and Collegedale with an arm that strikes west into the heart of Chattanooga.
Only two candidates filed to run in this special election, one for each major party. Greg Vital, the Republican candidate, is a known commodity, a long-standing community figure and regional businessman. He co-founded an assisted living company, Morning Pointe Senior Living, which operates dozens of facilities throughout the Southeast and is the current chairman of the Land Trust for Tennessee, a land conservation organization that encourages property owners to make environmental commitments for their land in perpetuity. Vital has also endowed several scholarships at local community colleges and founded a conservation center at Cleveland State Community College.
Politically, he has served as a Collegedale City Commissioner, but this special election is not his first foray into state-level politics. In 2012, Vital ran in the open Republican primary for Senate District 10 but lost to current Sen. Todd Gardenhire by a mere 40 votes. This time around, he has won the Republican nomination at the very least.
DeAngelo Jelks, in contrast, is an outsider. This election is his first attempt at electoral politics but is not his first time serving his community. He served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army and was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts; Jelks is still a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is a human resources professional in Hamilton County and volunteers with a variety of youth organizations, which Jelks says is his way of giving thanks for the mentorship program that led him to both college and military service.
The campaign platforms of both candidates are boilerplate for their party. Jelks is advocating for increased education funding from the state and ties economic opportunity to increased educational access, whether that is vocational or collegiate. Like many Democratic state legislative candidates from 2018 and 2020, he is also running on expanding Medicaid within Tennessee. Vital is a proponent of lowering taxes in a bid to support economic growth and prioritizes cultural issues such as limiting abortion rights and protecting Second Amendment rights. No position taken by either campaign is outside the norm of their respective parties.
What is outside the norm is the amount of money being raised for this special election, at least by one campaign. In less than two months, Vital has raised more than $100,000, an impressive sum for even a regular state legislative election. And he is spending it, too. He has already spent over $50,000, with the majority of it going to Big Dog Strategies to pay for direct mailers to voters and an additional $10,000 going to Baker Group Strategies for general campaign management and consulting. Baker Group Strategies is the same group that ran both Sen. Blackburn’s and Sen. Hagerty’s successful Senate campaigns.
Jelks’ campaign is also sparing no expense but, unfortunately for him, he has not been able to raise anywhere near the amount that Vital has. While Jelks has spent over $10,000 of the more than $12,000 that he has raised, he is still being outspent by a vast margin. His largest expense has been for signage.
Both candidates have loaned their campaigns money, but the amounts differ quite a bit. Vital loaned his campaign $10,000 and donated an additional $1,600, while Jelks loaned his campaign $250 and received a $1,600 donation from his wife. In addition, they have both seen financial support from political notables. Jelks received $250 from Rodney Strong, the chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and a part-time Hamilton County Magistrate. Vital received $5,850 from a variety of state and local officials including Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Rep. Esther Helton, Rep. Johnny Garrett, and Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Highlander. He also received $1,500 from the JMS Political Action Committee (PAC), which is entirely funded by the company Check Into Cash, and $500 from the Butler Snow PAC, funded by the international law firm based in Mississippi. Jelks, on the other hand, received no PAC donations.
As can be seen from donations, the Republican Party is putting a greater financial focus on this race, as a Democratic upset in this district would be quite embarrassing. Former President Donald Trump won 64% of the vote in this district in 2020, besting President Joe Biden by 31%. However, low turnout special elections, like this one is predicted to be, are ripe for unexpected results, so the GOP leadership would rather be safe than sorry. Either way, the political ramifications for the state at large are not serious. Even considering the outside chance of a Democratic flip, the Republican supermajority in the House would not be in danger and the district will be redrawn early next year, most likely in a shape that will benefit the Republicans.
Our first chance at seeing the potential mood of the voters occurred Tuesday, with the primary elections for both candidates. While interpreting this data must come with several caveats, it does provide an opportunity to judge voter enthusiasm, which is understandably low. The major caveat with this data is that the result of each primary was nearly pre-determined; as long as each candidate showed up and voted for themselves, they were guaranteed to move on to the general election. Understandably, such knowledge would depress the turnout rate. With roughly 50,000 registered voters in this district, turnout for the primary was an abysmal 2.4%. Vital got a little more than 1,000 primary votes, while Jelks received less than 150.
The second caveat is related to the first, in that this data cannot be used for a partisan prediction in any meaningful way. Yes, this district does lean heavily toward the Republicans, but it would be foolish to expect Vital to win by 77% in September. Truthfully, the best prediction that can be derived from this data is that turnout will most likely be extremely low for the general election, barring any unforeseen excitement. The regular voter cares less for the state legislature than they might for a more immediate official like a mayor and is less motivated to show up and vote.
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