Roe looks to overturn freshman’s win

Freshman Rep. David Davis (R-Tenn.), who won a crowded Republican primary in 2006 with just 22 percent of the vote, is in a two-man race this year with one of his vanquished foes.

Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe (R) finished fourth in 2006 with 17 percent of the vote, but has quietly become one of the few challengers in the country this year to out-raise an incumbent. He reported collecting $120,000 between January and March, compared to $80,000 for Davis, who still holds a 2-to-1 advantage in total cash.


Better still, with the 2006 runner-up to Davis deciding against another campaign, Roe doesn’t have any serious competition to dilute his challenge to Davis for the GOP nod in 2008. Whoever wins the primary will almost certainly carry the conservative district in the fall; Davis won with 61 percent of the vote in 2006 in what was a banner year from Democrats.

“It’s tough beating an incumbent. I’ve looked at the odds, I know that it’s hard to do, but I really think we have an excellent shot,” said Roe, who has retired from his medical practice and is starting his campaign earlier in order to devote more time to the race.

A Tennessee primary for a majority-black district pitting freshman Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who is white, against Nikki Tinker, who is black, has received much more attention, while the Davis-Roe battle has flown very much under the radar so far this cycle.

But the races are similar in many ways: The state’s filing deadline passed two weeks ago, and both feature largely non-ideological one-on-one match-ups between two of the top finishers in very crowded primaries from last cycle.

Whereas the Cohen-Tinker match-up will key on race, the Davis-Roe battle will focus on geography.
Davis’s vast and disparate northeastern Tennessee district includes five counties that made up between 10 and 25 percent of the primary vote in 2006.

Roe and Davis, a former state legislator, both come from one of the largest, Washington County, and will have to fight over others that went heavily for local candidates in what was a 13-candidate field.

In 2006, Davis and Roe basically split their home county, which cast the most votes. Each took slightly more than a third of the vote there, while Davis outperformed Roe in most other counties.

The second biggest is Sullivan, which went 53 percent for former Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable in 2006. Venable, who finished second overall, announced last month that he would not run again this year, despite feeling confident that he could win in a three-man primary in which two candidates hail from the same county.

He said the race will probably hinge on his county, but he’s not yet getting involved for fear of jeopardizing business interests.

“I have a personal preference there, and if my board feels like we won’t damage the effort here by my preference, I might do that at some point in the election,” Venable said.

Businessman Richard Roberts finished third on the strength of his 53 percent showing in Greene County and more than $2 million in campaign spending.

He is noncommittal about throwing his considerable weight around in the congressional race, though. He is partial to Roe, with whom he became friends during the 2006 campaign, but insisted that he is a free agent.

Roberts said Roe would have to do well in Sevier County, a growing county in the southern part of the district near Knoxville, where fifth-place finisher Larry Waters took 62 percent.

“I assume he’ll be spending a lot of his time down there,” Roberts said of Roe. “He’s well-known and liked in the upper, eastern part of the district, so I think he’s got a good chance.”

Roe shared partial results of a district-wide January poll of 637 registered voters, performed by Charles Roberts of East Tennessee State University. It showed Davis’s name recognition was 47 percent, while Roe’s was 37 percent.

Davis has signed up Bill Snodgrass as his campaign manager. Snodgrass served as district director for former Rep. Bill Jenkins (R), who served in the seat for five terms before retiring in 2006. Also, Keith Spicer, a co-chairman of Davis’s campaign last cycle, is now an adviser to Roe.

Davis’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said it’s generally tough to beat incumbents in the state but that Roe does have an advantage in that the district is focused on a singular media market in the Tri-Cities area of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport.

“That’s the one district where there is largely one media market, although you might have to do Knoxville as well to hit the whole district,” Oppenheimer said. “So it’s probably an affordable district to campaign against the incumbent.”

Despite the challengers’ enthusiasm, David Wasserman, a House race analyst for the Cook Political Report, said Davis will likely have to do something wrong for the voters to kick him out.

The incumbent has had legendary staying power in the seat over the last 90 years, including being held for three decades by both Reps. B. Carroll Reece (R) and Jimmy Quillen (R) and then by Jenkins.

“Roe’s fourth-place primary finish in 2006 does not bode well for his run this year, no matter how much money he raises,” Wasserman said. “But his biggest problem is that it’s virtually impossible to out-conservative Davis, and this district is the heart of Tennessee’s social conservative base.”

Bill Snodgrass has signed on to be campaign manager for Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe (R), not Rep. David Davis (R-Tenn.). Incorrect information appeared in Friday’s paper.