Tennessee House District 18 stretches across Kingston Pike, extending from the west end of the shopping-filled Bearden to greens of Cedar Bluff. The historically Republican district is wealthier and whiter than Knoxville as a whole and the last Democrat to hold this state House seat was in 1984. But both voting data, and the candidate pool, suggest the district could be moving to the left.
District 18 incumbent Republican Martin Daniel's margin of victory has narrowed since he was elected in 2014. Two years ago, Daniel won by just 165 votes over his Democratic rival Greg Mackay. When Daniel announced he wasn’t running again this year, the field was wide open for both sides.
Two small business owners are on the ballot this fall. Republican Eddie Mannis owns a dry cleaning company, and is known for his work with Honor Air. Democrat Virginia Couch is an attorney and owns a dog-boarding business. Both candidates said their respective businesses had a 70 percent drop in revenue since the pandemic began. But the candidates have different top priorities for coming back from the COVID recession if they make it to the House.
"I want to work on education, I want to increase teacher pay, especially with what they’re going through now," Couch said.
Virginia Couch has centered her campaign on public education and healthcare, she said these are key to rebuilding the economy. Eddie Mannis said supporting businesses is at the top of his list.
"Getting the economy jumpstarted, working with businesses and individuals to get us out of the COVID recession so to speak is really important to me,” Mannis said. “What that proposed legislation could look like for me I don't know, but it's going to be a big concern.”
He had a similar answer to many key issues, citing the need for more information. From Governor Lee’s school voucher program (“The jury is still out on vouchers with me”), to criminal justice reform ("I just really haven't studied much about that, so we'll save that for a later date"), to how he plans to vote in the presidential race ("I'm still working on trying to make a final decision for who I'll be casting my vote for”).
Mannis expresses few strong positions, holding fast to his identity as a moderate. His position did not garner enough support to win the mayoral race against Indya Kincannon last November, but he said he thinks it will be benefit him in this year's legislative race.
"During the Mayor’s race I was too much of a Republican. During the state rep’s race, I was too much of a Democrat,” Mannis said. “So I am a moderate, I think you could say I'm a compassionate moderate. I look at it from all sides ... I don't look at it from just a partisanship perspective.”
He won the August Republican primary for the seat by 99 votes, but not without backlash from the party. His rival, Gina Oster, filed a petition to overturn his nomination, saying Mannis voted in the Democratic primary in April. The Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee voted 43-18 to keep Mannis on the November ballot. Mannis said he hopes voters in District 18 appreciate that he’s not defined by party.
"Maybe that's the reason they should trust me more, because I am my own person. I am a Republican, I believe in the Republican Party beliefs, but not all of them," he said. "I am open minded and I look at the situation, and I make the best decision for the situation at hand."
University of Tennessee political science professor Dr. Anthony Nownes said the local Republican conflict reflects the impact of Trump on the District 18 race.
“Eddie Mannis is one the few that actually went public with his misgivings about some of the President’s behavior,” Nownes said. “That makes it unusual, but it’s indicative of a larger issue within the party.”
Couch is more direct on her plans for the presidential vote.
"I am not undecided on mine. I will be voting on the Democratic ticket, I will be voting for Biden and Harris. I am very concerned about the direction our nation is heading in at the top," Couch said.
She acknowledges some Disctrict 18 voters may be alienated by her positions and policy priorities.
"If they are interested in a private voucher program, if they are interested in further limiting reproductive rights, then they do not probably want to vote for me because those are important issues and those are the only people that I probably would not be able to represent," Couch said.
As the Democratic candidate, Couch is the underdog. In the August primary, 6,841 Republican voters cast a ballot, but just 3,892 Democrats did. One caveat: about half of those Republican voters cast a ballot for Gina Oster. Factoring out Oster's votes, Couch (who ran unchallenged in the Democratic primary) receieved about 400 more total votes than Mannis. Like her opponent, Couch said she hopes voters look past the party labels on their ballot.
"Everybody thinks the Democratic Party is anti-business, but it's not. I've been a Democrat for a very long time. We can address some social issues that will make our economy better. It's an economic decision for people to be healthy. It's an economic decision to have a good public-school system," Couch said.
Either candidate will be a shift left from incumbent Martin Daniel, but the degree of that shift will be known only after the votes are counted.