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In U.S. House District 2 Race, A Rematch and a Test

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Hoyos for Congress (L); U.S. House of Representatives (R)
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On a map, Tennessee’s Second Congressional District looks a little like a pirate’s hook. Its wrist is near Tellico Lake, and the tip of the hook nearly pierces the Kentucky line at Jellico. Within the crook that arcs between the two ends is the Democratic-leaning island of East Tennessee’s largest city, and rural, more conservative areas.

The electoral map favors the incumbent Republican, Congressman Tim Burchett, which is not a huge surprise. East Tennessee has been voting Republican since long before the rest of the South hopped on the bandwagon during and after the Civil Rights movement. In fact, more members of the long-defunct Whig party have held this seat than Democrats. The last Democrat to represent the Tennessee Second was William Churchwell in 1853.

But today, Democrat Renee Hoyos looks at the map and sees some hope. And she has numbers to back it up. In 2018, Hoyos won 33 percent of the vote in the district, a higher percentage than any Democratic candidate since 2000.

“I think the district is changing,” Hoyos says. “I think the demographic is changing. And offering the voters a choice really made them sit up and think about their own priorities.”

Anywhere else in the country, Burchett says, his 66 percent win “would have been considered a landslide.” He says Hoyos was a strong candidate, and that former Rep. Jimmy Duncan, who often garnered 70 to 75 percent of the vote, had the benefit of incumbency and weak Democratic challengers.

Burchett and Hoyos are back for a rematch in 2020. Burchett is running on fiscal responsibility and transparency, maintaining the voice he crafted in 2018 as an outsider bucking the Washington establishment. Hoyos says she thinks East Tennesseans may be ready for a change built from bipartisan agreement around the importance of health care and environmental policies.

“People are more in the middle than you think,” Hoyos says. “I think if you’re on political Twitter, you think the whole world is that way. And actually it’s a really small slice of life.”

People who complain there’s no difference between two major-party candidates would find little evidence to support their contention in this race. A look at the two candidates’ campaign websites shows little overlap in policy priorities: Burchett highlights opposition to abortion, expanded gun rights and reducing government regulation, among others. Hoyos’ issues include raising the federal minimum wage, enacting some gun regulations, and expanding ballot access.

After Democrats took control of the House in the fall 2018 elections, Burchett knew he would be a first-timer in the minority, a man at the bottom of the pyramid.

“There are 435 of us, and I like to say I’m the 435th most-powerful person in Congress, because I realize my role as a freshman,” Burchett says. “But I’ve served in local office for quite some time, and I get the nuances and the power struggles.”

Since taking office, Burchett has sponsored 18 bills and three resolutions. One of the bills received House approval, as did another he co-sponsored with Democrat Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Only one has become law: the Patriotic Employer Protection Act, which was approved as part of a larger defense spending bill in the autumn of 2019.*

Burchett is unimpressed by what he sees as sloppy management in the House, including the staggering cost of some spending bills and the sudden votes that are sometimes called to pass complicated legislation in a very brief time. He singles out a September vote on a proposed coronavirus relief package.

“I think parts of it started leaking out, so the Speaker brings it up for an immediate vote in fifteen minutes,” Burchett says. “We have fifteen minutes to read a bill over a hundred pages that maybe spends a trillion dollars. And that’s just no way to run a government.”

To address that, Burchett has proposed a rule that would require the estimated cost of legislation to be read to the House when the bill is introduced. Another bill he co-sponsored this year would plant one trillion trees around the world.

“I’m very concerned about the environment. I want my daughter to grow up with clean air and drinkable water,” he says. Reducing carbon in the atmosphere “is a long term issue, and we can do it and we can get behind it.”

An old saying held that all politics are local. But increasingly, politics are heavily influenced by national issues and figures, making it hard to separate a regional race from broader polarization. Frustration with President Trump helped pump up Democratic turnout nationally in 2018, and Hoyos hopes a similar bump this year will help her chances.

“We really felt like the district wants to flip, it just needs a good shove. And that’s what I’m here to do,” Hoyos says.

Hoyos wants to focus on making health care more affordable and accessible for people of moderate or limited means.

“I want everyone to have a job that pays the bills and gives them some extra money, so that they can be comfortable and not have to worry every month that the money is going to run out before the month does,” she says. “And those are things that apply to everyone, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

Burchett has generally aligned himself with President Trump, but he says he’s not worried about a potential Biden presidency. His role as a member of Congress wouldn’t be substantially different, he says.

“Our focus is on constituent services,” Burchett says. “I would still work in a bipartisan manner. I always try to get along with the administration. I’ve differed with the president on some issues, and I’ve agreed with him on many others. I’m sure it’d be the same way under a Joe Biden presidency.”

Hoyos realizes she faces the uphill battles of incumbency and the district’s conservative leaning. But she thinks she’s up to the challenge, and that voters are willing to hear her out, regardless of party identity.

“I’m interested in hearing what your problems are,” she says. “We’re not going to agree on everything, and that’s fine. But we should work together in order to create a society that is just for everyone.”

Both candidates have been successful fundraisers. Burchett has raised more since 2019 ($1.2 million) than Hoyos ($718,000), according to records from the Federal Election Commission. Contributions to both candidates have come mostly from Tennessee, though Hoyos has seen contributions from forty-eight states, perhaps an indicator of broader Democratic interest in the race.**

Hoyos says internal polling shows her within striking distance of the incumbent congressman. Burchett dismisses that, pointing to the district’s strong Republican history. An upset victory for Hoyos is unlikely but not impossible; many political observers will be more interested in measuring the margin that separates the two when the votes are counted. If Hoyos performs better than she did in 2018, it could be an indicator that this deep-red district is taking on a more purple hue.

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* - This sentence originally said none of Rep. Burchett's bills have become law. The Patriotic Employer Protection Act was folded into a defense spending bill, and was approved under that umbrella in September 2019.

** - This sentence originally misinterpreted Mrs. Hoyos' fundraising reach. It has been re-written to clarify the geographic breadth of her contributions.

Both corrections were made on Monday, November 2.