- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - By all accounts, the open seat in Tennessee’s 8th congressional district is expected to stay in the hands of the Republican Party come Election Day in November.

That’s what makes Thursday’s primary contest between 13 GOP candidates in the wide-open race in this part rural, part urban district so important. Because of the large number of candidates - and because there is no runoff - the Republican primary winner could claim victory with 30 percent of the vote or less.

“When you have that many candidates, you never really ever know what is going to happen,” said Eric Groenendyk, an assistant political science professor at the University of Memphis. “You could have someone that actually wins the primary with a very small percentage of the vote.”

Thirteen Republicans and two long-shot Democrats are vying to fill the seat owned for three terms by Republican Stephen Fincher, a farmer and choir singer from tiny Frog Jump who announced in February that he would not seek re-election. Fincher won in 2010 in part by stressing he was not a career politician and was the perfect representative for the rural voters of the district, which includes urban and rural Shelby County, and parts of 14 other mostly rural counties in west Tennessee.

The 8th District is heavily Republican and is considered a safe GOP seat in November’s general election. President Barack Obama lost the district’s vote in both 2008 and 2012 by 2-1 margins.

Of the 13 Republicans, only five have raised significant amounts of money for their campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. They are George Flinn, Brian Kelsey, David Kustoff, Mark Luttrell and Brad Greer. From that group, all but Greer is from Shelby County, which includes the Memphis suburbs and about a third of the district’s voters.

Flinn, a radiologist and radio station owner, leads all candidates by far in campaign contributions, though he donated to himself $2.7 million of the $2.9 million he had collected as of July 15, records show. Like Fincher, he has billed himself as a nonpolitician, and he has been aggressive in buying air time for TV commercials.

Kelsey, a Tennessee state senator, Kustoff, a former U.S. attorney for the west Tennessee, and Luttrell, a former sheriff and Shelby County’s current mayor, also have used television to sell voters on their conservative values.

“The base (of voters) is going to be pretty conservative, but you’re seeing in some of the advertising the question ‘Who is most conservative?’” said Chris Baxter, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee-Martin.

Flinn, Kelsey, Kustoff and Greer have all said they support Republican nominee Donald Trump for president, while Luttrell has said he has some “reservations” about Trump’s candidacy. In a video posted on his Facebook site, Flinn uses part of one of Trump’s slogans when he says, “I look forward to sharing my vision with you on how we make our nation great again.”

Kustoff has received some support from outside the district. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, has endorsed him. Kustoff also received a $2,700 contribution from a George W. Bush from Midland, Texas, whose listed occupation in federal election records is “former president of the United States.” Kustoff was appointed by Bush to be U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee in 2006.

Greer, a businessman from Jackson raised and educated in Union City, has tried to separate himself from the pack as the top candidate from outside of Shelby County. Baxter says it’s possible that Greer could pull an upset if he wins a large percentage of the rural vote outside of Shelby County.

“His candidacy really draws attention to that whole urban-rural split,” Baxter said. “He’s really trying to tap into his northwest Tennessee roots.”

No one from Shelby County has held the 8th district seat since 1983.

According to the Federal Election Commission, the other Republicans in the race are Tom Leatherwood, Raymond Honeycutt, David J. Maldonado, Ken Atkins, David Wharton, Hunter Baker, Dave Bault, and George B. Howell. The Democrats vying in the primary are Gregory Alan Frye and Rickey Hobson.

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