When Republican moderates run to the right, voters end up with extremists

February 23, 2023 6:00 am
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, campaigned for now U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles in Franklin, Tenn. in October 2022. (Photo: Holly McCall)

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, campaigned for now U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles in Franklin, Tenn. in October 2022. (Photo: Holly McCall)

An old country saying states that when you lie down with pigs, you’re going to get up with mud on you. 

Or, if you are a moderate Tennessee Republican who lies down with the far right wing of your party, you’re going to get up with a loss.

Recently, media reports have shone a spotlight on freshman U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, who won Tennessee’s 5th District race in November after first sailing through a multi-candidate primary.

After arriving in Washington, D.C., he promptly distinguished himself, in a manner of speaking, by allying himself with members on the farthest right edge of the Republican party — including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Further, our new man in Washington has been lying about his life and career.

The Lookout’s Sam Stockard reported on Jan. 27, that contrary to his claims, Ogles did not earn a master’s degree in business administration from the prestigious Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. Stockard found instead that Ogles attended a short-term, non-degree executive education program at Owen, the type of program that typically takes a few hours to complete.

An old saying states that when you lie down with pigs, you’re going to get up dirty. In Tennessee, moderate Republicans who lie down with the far right get up with a loss.

Phil Williams, investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, went further in a Feb. 16 story, reporting that Ogles has claimed to be a law enforcement officer, an economist, an international expert in sex crimes and an expert in tax policy — none of which is backed up by actual experience.

Social media has gone wild. Posters are asking: Why did this happen? Where was the media? Why didn’t Ogles’ Democratic opponent publicize this before the election?

Let’s place the blame for Ogles’ election squarely where it lies: with other Republicans.

After the Tennessee Legislature drew new congressional districts in 2022, the state’s historically Democratic 5th District was explicitly drawn to divide Nashville, encompass rural areas and allow a Republican to win. 

Open seats typically draw large fields, and the 2022 Republican primary was no different. What was also no different was political infighting about who was — or was not — Republican enough, with the Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee booting several candidates off the ballot. One of those bounced was businessman Baxter Lee, by all accounts a smart and reasonable person. 

Of the remaining candidates, three were competitive: former House Speaker Beth Harwell, retired Tennessee National Guard Gen. Kurt Winstead and Ogles. 

Harwell was known as a moderate when she served as speaker and remained popular in her Nashville House district until she left the legislature to run for governor in 2018. Winstead was a less publicly known quantity at the outset of the congressional campaign, but a review of his campaign contributions shows he received money from former Democratic elected officials and Nashville businessmen, bankers and doctors who hew to the middle. 

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)

Harwell and Winstead both pandered to the right wing, with Harwell posing for pictures at the Mexico-Texas border to bolster her anti-immigration credentials. In the meantime, Ogles posted videos of himself shooting a flamethrower in a suburban neighborhood, saying he’d take the heat to President Joe Biden’s policies. 

Ogles won with an almost 14% margin in only his second election, beating Harwell — who has won more than a dozen races — 36.9% to 22%.

When moderate candidates fight to go right, they don’t fool anyone. Voters who believe the 2020 election was stolen, for instance, aren’t going to be convinced a moderate Republican isn’t a “RINO” — and the actual far right-wing candidate drives right up the middle to a win while his opponents duke it out.

The 2018 gubernatorial race was another example, featuring former U.S. Rep. Diane Black and current University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, commissioner of economic and community development under former Gov. Bill Haslam.

Plenty of Knoxvillians said of Boyd, a longtime Knox County businessman, that he was also smart. Reasonable. Good with business — like an old-school Republican. Even a few Democrats said that while Boyd might not get their vote, they could live with him as governor. 

First, Black attacked Boyd and now-Gov. Bill Lee for being too moderate in an ad, quoting Boyd as saying he’d model himself on — horrors! — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012. 

Boyd followed up with an ad accusing Black of a Beltway mentality and portraying her as an opponent of Trump-era Republican measures to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Lee stayed clean as the pair slung mud, running wholesome ads of him welding like an average Joe.

After Lee won the primary, a couple of people expressed relief Black hadn’t won, to which I responded that Black, a career elected official, would say whatever was necessary to win. Lee, I added, was a “true believer.”

And he is. Since he took office, Lee’s pushed for a controversial program to use public school money for private school students, announced a plan to bring a chain of conservative Christian charter schools to Tennessee, backed the most draconian abortion ban in the country and overseen a health department that declined federal funding to diagnose and treat HIV. Most recently, he’s announced a plan to privatize road-building and create toll roads and another to give taxpayer money to his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Moderate Republicans need to learn that they will never win against true extremists; it’s impossible to out-right the far right. In the meantime, moderate Republican voters — and yes, there are some — have become either voters without a party or feel, out of party loyalty, they are given no option but to vote for the extremists. 

And all of us are stuck with Ogles and Lee, and get a little dirty in the process.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.