- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A closer-than-expected mayor’s race in Nashville has Republicans hoping they can take hold of one of the last remaining major elected offices in Tennessee that has eluded their grasp amid a statewide GOP wave.

Voters in the nation’s 25th largest city go to the polls Thursday to decide between Councilwoman Megan Barry and hedge fund manager David Fox.

While the race is ostensibly nonpartisan, Fox has been quick to embrace the Republican community in and around Nashville. Meanwhile, Barry has touted her “strong progressive voice” in a city that last year voted 2-to-1 against giving state lawmakers more power to regulate abortion, twice overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama and in 2009 soundly rejected requiring all government business be done in English.

But Fox has hammered away at Barry for being too focused on social issues and not enough on fiscal conservatism. In an off-year election that generally features a low turnout, Fox has targeted conservative voters in the affluent western section of the city and in the more suburban and rural areas that ring around Nashville’s urban core.

Barry supporters charged the Fox campaign with trying to suppress the black vote by running ads questioning the Christian faith of the councilwoman and her husband, Bruce, who is a member the board of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and has written blog posts criticizing what he called the “Jesus-Industrial Complex.”

Fox, who is Jewish, has called the ads targeting his opponent’s husband justified because Barry has been a vocal critic of his brother George Fox giving $1 million to super PAC that has been heavily involved in the race.

Health care worker Arbria Spence, 55, cast her early vote in favor of Barry and has been encouraging fellow African-Americans to turn out on Thursday. Spence said she believes a Republican mayor “wouldn’t be good for Nashville.”

“Megan Barry will be a mayor for all the people,” she said. “I believe she has the vision to move us forward.”

Barry and Fox were the top two finishers in a crowded field of candidates to succeed term-limited Mayor Karl Dean, himself a former board member of the state chapter of the ACLU in the 1990s. Because neither received 50 percent of the vote, they headed for a runoff that quickly became a partisan fight.

Fox raised eyebrows in Nashville for traveling to neighboring Williamson County to be endorsed by Republican state Sen. Jack Johnson at a fundraiser featuring Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker. Fox has also been endorsed by former NASCAR great Darrell Waltrip, another Republican from Williamson County.

Republican operative Gregory Gleaves, a former executive director of the state GOP, said Fox has fired up centrists and conservatives who have felt left out of the political process in Nashville.

“His brand of Republicanism is focused on being fiscally responsible, and he seems to just not care about the social issues,” Gleaves said. “And I think that’s where a lot of Nashville is.”

The state Democratic Party has taken the unusual step of getting involved in a mayor’s race, most recently sending out targeted mail pieces labeling Fox as a “tea party extremist,” and criticizing him as a hedge fund manager who opposes raising the minimum wage.

Stamford, Connecticut-based Titan Advisors is run by Fox’s brother, while Fox himself ran the Nashville office before launching his bid for mayor. When The Tennessean newspaper questioned why more than $2.2 billion of the fund’s $4 billion in assets are kept in the Cayman Islands, Fox called it a “very standard way of doing business” because many pension funds are based abroad.

Fox told the paper that he sees his hedge fund experience as a political advantage because Nashville wants a mayor who has a “sophisticated understanding of investments and finance and balance sheets and income statements.”

The winner of Thursday’s election will become the seventh mayor since the city of Nashville merged with Davidson County in 1963.

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Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.

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