Nashville, TN – Sixteen years ago, Tom Leatherwood jumped into politics by unseating a longtime Tennessee state senator in the Republican primary. Now he's trying for a repeat performance, running against three-term incumbent U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn.
Leatherwood comes from the Memphis suburbs that historically wielded power in the 7th District. But the Brentwood businesswoman has the advantage of incumbency and the name recognition that comes with it.
It takes a great deal of effort to run in Tennessee's 7th Congressional District. It's long and misshapen, stretching along the state's southern border through farmland where west and middle Tennessee meet. Then it pokes up, alternately bulging and skinny, ending on the Kentucky state line. Perhaps most importantly, it includes two GOP strongholds in two separate media markets: the most affluent suburbs of both Memphis and Nashville.
The district's current shape was set in 1980. Tennessee Journal Editor Ed Cromer says that for 20 years, starting with the election of Don Sundquist, the seat was held by politicians from west Tennessee, where most of the district's voters are.
Sundquist lived in Shelby County in the western end of the district. When Sundquist moved on and ran for governor in 1994, Memphis U.S. Attorney Ed Bryant ran for the seat.
Bryant's rival Marsha Blackburn had a good showing in that election, largely because there were three strong candidates from Shelby County who divided up the vote in that county with Blackburn. She got a good share of the votes herself and then she won overwhelmingly in Williamson County, where the second-biggest vote is. Blackburn was able to win the 7th District seat handily, almost two-to-one over the second place finisher, according to Ed Cromer.
As a state senator and Shelby County Register, Tom Leatherwood is somewhat familiar to voters in the western end of the 7th District. When he announced his candidacy this spring, he had to start from scratch with Middle Tennesseans.
Leatherwood seemed to get off to a strong start. He immediately issued a bold letter calling Blackburn's ethics into question. It pointed out that she had hired family members to work for her campaign, had underreported campaign funds in previous election cycles, and that, in Leatherwood's opinion, she took too many trips paid for by lobbyists.
Within days, he was on Nashville's conservative talk radio. In a ten-minute discussion on the Steve Gill Show, Leatherwood painted Blackburn as a Washington insider more interested in talking about GOP priorities than in acting on them.
"She's been a passive vote, unfocused on actually working with the fellow congressmen and -women to implement these principles. So, we don't need a passive vote at this critical juncture," Leatherwood said.
That day in March was Leatherwood's last appearance on Gill's show. Since then, he has been mostly absent from middle Tennessee altogether. He makes appearances in west Tennessee, including on talk radio, at fundraisers and at meet-and-greets, but not with the frequency typical of of a full-tilt congressional campaign.
By the end of June, Leatherwood's fundraising hadn't passed the $1,000 mark.
Blackburn is nonetheless taking Leatherwood seriously. She has spent at least $800,000 to defend her seat, in part on radio ads that cite her glowing reviews from Citizens Against Government Waste and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all while scolding her challenger Leatherwood.
"All Tom Leatherwood has to offer is negative and personal attacks against fellow Republican Marsha Blackburn, the conservative pro-life congressman from the seventh district. Tom Leatherwood should be ashamed," the Blackburn campaign ad says.
Marsha Blackburn's problem is not winning or losing this primary.
"Her problem is that she would like to put people on notice that she's not going to be easy to go after in another primary. She doesn't want to have to face this kind of contest every two years, and the best way to do that is just to clobber this first serious primary opponent, so that anybody else from, again, the Memphis part of the district where she does not reside, which is the more populous part of the district, so people from there will say, 'Well, I'm not really going to spend my time and resources trying to win that House seat while she's still there,' " said Vanderbilt University political scientist Robert Oppenheimer.
Whether it's a fight for the next term in Congress or one to solidify Blackburn's place in the future, both she and Leatherwood have worked to rack up a long list of endorsements.
Blackburn has the support of prominent Tennessee Republicans Lamar Alexander, Bill Frist and Bob Corker, plus the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee.
Leatherwood has the support of 30 local officials from western Tennessee, the Gun Owners of America, and the Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal.