Beth Harwell touts Trump’s influence in comeback attempt

Will Harwell’s congressional bid carry the same stench of failure as her gubernatorial bid?

July 25, 2022 7:01 am
Former 5th District congressional candidate Beth Harwell, photographed at the U.S.-Mexico border wall built under former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Beth Harwell for U.S. Congress)

Former 5th District congressional candidate Beth Harwell, photographed at the U.S.-Mexico border wall built under former President Donald Trump. (Photo: Beth Harwell for U.S. Congress)

We knew back in the cooler times of early 2022 that the state legislature’s crusade to kill Davidson County’s blue congressional district by splitting it into three red districts would torpedo meaningful representation in Washington for much of Nashville. Two of the seats that have now gobbled up big chunks of Davidson—the 6th and 7th districts—are held by GOP hardliners whose incumbencies are safe from threats posed by newly infused Nashville constituents. The third seat—the mighty 5th—is open, unleashing a dustup of a GOP congressional primary race that in its final weeks has stumbled into a carnival of accusations and negative ads. 

Into this maelstrom last February strode the sentient mass of spineless opportunism that metabolizes under the name of Beth Harwell. When last we tuned in she was swimming in humiliation in the 2018 Tennessee Republican primary for governor, coming in a distant fourth place. Not only did she lose badly to now Gov. Bill Lee, one of the dullest knives in this or any gubernatorial drawer, but Harwell’s paltry 15% of the vote even put her several points behind the certified whackadoodle and former U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who regarded grocery store pornography as a root cause of school shootings.

Republicans not only divided the 5th Congressional District into three parts, they disqualified two GOP candidates — including Trump-endorsed Morgan Ortagus. The redistricting bill that created the new 5th might as well have been called the “Beth Harwell Full Employment Act.” 

Harwell abandoned her position as Tennessee’s first female Speaker of the House to take a flyer in that governor’s race, and with its dispiriting outcome it wouldn’t have been crazy to think we’d seen the last of her politically. In 2020 then-President Donald Trump handed her a five year term on the Tennessee Valley Authority board, a cushy side hustle that pays her over $40,000 a year to attend quarterly business meetings.

But no, she still has the bug. As early as mid-2021 Harwell indicated that she was waiting for her buddies cooking up redistricting in the legislature to bake her a congressional seat, and right around the same time Lt. Gov. Randy McNally opined that Harwell would “make a fine addition to Congress.” It seemed like the fix was in, and to no one’s surprise she was drawn into an incumbent-free district; the redistricting bill might well have been called the “Beth Harwell Full Employment Act.”

But if Harwell was hoping for a primary flight light on turbulence with a smooth landing on the general election ballot, an open red seat is too shiny an object to shield her from a rogue’s gallery of GOP chuckleheads just as eager to go to DC and become part of the institution they profess to hate so much. In particular, the Trump-approved carpetbagger Morgan Ortagus blew into town and filed papers, and so to Harwell’s rescue came the legislature with its 3-year residency requirement bill. That bill passed but in an amended form that failed to kill Ortagus’s bid. 

So then Harwell’s pals at the Tennessee Republican Party (which she chaired back in the early 2000s) stepped in to disqualify Ortagus and another Trumper in the race, the Marjorie Taylor Greene-endorsed Robby Starbuck. Starbuck tried to sue his way back onto the ballot but some bad lawyering ensured that effort went down in flames.

Yet even with those two out of the picture, Harwell finds herself locked in what is essentially a three-way GOP scrum with Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and Williamson County lawyer Kurt Winstead. 

Ogles, who seeks to occupy the protect-guns-and-fertilized-eggs-at-all-costs lane, opens the issues page of his website with the statement that “We can never allow what happened to Trump to happen to anyone else ever again.” I have no idea what this means. He also commits “to ending the federal government’s encroachment upon Tennessee’s sovereignty.” He needs to spend a little time getting to know the U.S. Constitution. 

Gen. Kurt Winstead. (Photo: Winstead campaign Facebook)

With many years in the National Guard culminating in the rank of Brigadier General, Winstead brands himself as the “Conservative Commander.” He, too, likes firearms and zygotes a whole hell of a lot, and wishes to “destroy our enemies overseas” (without actually naming them). He says he “knows what needs to be done to reverse Biden’s inflationary policies” but neglects to say what that might actually be. 

These two, with their simplistic but direct pronouncements, do at least pretend to talk issues, whereas Harwell’s website doesn’t bother to have an issues page. We do get a bio that trumpets all that she accomplished in the Tennessee legislature, which is to say vanishingly little. Her main achievement was becoming Speaker, not anything that actually improved the lives of Tennesseans while she occupied the post. When she declared for the 5th district race Harwell framed herself as “the only proven conservative leader and reformer” in the field, yet one struggles mightily to find a clue as to what of substance she has led and what of significance she has reformed. 

A perverse subtext of this and just about every other contested GOP race in the Congressional midterms is the role of the orange man and the subservience of those who wish to lay claim to MAGAworld voters, of which there are no doubt many in the redrawn 5th. Ogles can flash the endorsement of the group formerly known as Veterans for Trump, though he is being attacked by a PAC with ties to Trump. It’s apparently aimed at helping Winstead, who has the backing of the Trumpian tossed candidate Ortagus. 

That leaves the generally rudderless Harwell with no choice but to do some Trump bootlicking of her own. Her Facebook profile is headlined “mother/teacher/Trump appointee” (“teacher” is a dodge—I suppose Trumpheads won’t groove to the more accurate “college professor”). When she entered the race last winter she told Axios that “I probably agree with 99% of Trump’s policy, but we differ in tone.” Unaware when to stop talking, she added this ridiculous observation: “Maybe that tone was necessary to get things done.” She made sure to point out that she voted for Trump and contributed to his campaign, and her first video spot was heavy on Trumpian border paranoia coupled with a promise she’ll “fight to finish President Trump’s wall.” In the Axios interview Harwell said “As far as I know, President Trump has never lived in the 5th congressional district.” Maybe not in the district, Beth, but he’s clearly taken up residence in your head. 

Candidates Winstead and Ogles do attempt to talk issues. Harwell’s website doesn’t bother to have an issues page.

Perhaps there are some in the Davidson County part of the 5th district who envision Harwell as a less pugnacious ideologue than her opponents. Her record in the legislature does tend to suggest she will accomplish little and influence no one, so there’s that, but we all know that when push comes to shove Tennessee GOP House members will march in right-wing lockstep, speaking and voting as one, no matter who gets the seat.

Nothing Harwell has uttered in her campaign should be taken by anyone as giving the slightest indication otherwise.



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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.