JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Tennessee First Congressional District Republican primary is looking like a real horse race according to a poll conducted for News Channel 11.

The Spry Strategies poll — with identical questions and parameters to one taken a month earlier — shows State Sen. Rusty Crowe (Johnson City) and Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger in a virtual dead heat — with four additional candidates within the margin of error.

The First Congressional primary is neck and neck according to a new poll released Friday by Spry Strategies.

“It’s going to be very tight,” Spry CEO Ryan Burrell said Friday. “I think it’s going to be three candidates within the error of margin and a fourth, or fifth, kind of nipping at their heels.”

Only 7.2 percentage points separate sixth-place John Clark, a former Kingsport mayor, (8.9) from Crowe (16.1). A full 14.3 percent of respondents remain undecided. Early voting in the crowded race — Rep. Phil Roe is retiring after six terms — started July 17 and the election is Aug. 6.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. The 665 likely voters who completed surveys via random sample conducted by “IVR” (Interactive Voice Response), live caller and online mobile interviews came from a potential field of 23,677 voters.

Spry’s parameters limited outreach to people who voted in at least three of five Republican primaries in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018, plus voters who first registered between May 1, 2018 and June 20, 2020.

The biggest positive mover was Knoxville physician Dr. Josh Gapp, who saw his support climb from 5.9 percent in the June poll to 11.7 percent, good for third. Gapp has spent more than $1 million of his own money in the campaign, second in self-funding behind Harshbarger.

This chart shows which candidates gained and lost ground compared to a late June poll that used the same questions and methodology.

Neither Gapp nor Harshbarger has ever held political office. Between them they’ve put more than $2.5 million of self-funding into the race.

“I’ll give them credit, for a candidate that is outside of the district they’re doing a pretty good job,” Burrell said of Gapp’s campaign. “People have obviously underestimated him a little bit.”

Diana Harshbarger and Timothy Hill saw the largest swings in their net favorability margins.

Harshbarger fell the most, from 22.4 percent a month ago to 15.8 percent, and saw her favorability margin plummet from a plus 33.5 to a negative 13.

Crowe’s support has held very steady throughout 2020, and he saw his share rise from 14.0 percent in June to 16.1 percent.

“Rusty would be the candidate to beat in my mind because he’s been very steady,” Burrell said.

Timothy Hill was fourth after losing almost a percentage point and had 10.4 percent support. Like Harshbarger, he saw his favorability margin take a tumble — from positive 16.4 to negative 3.8.

The drop came despite a nearly $900,000 funding boost when the economically conservative PAC Club for Growth endorsed him and funded a slate of pro-Hill ads and attack ads against several opponents.

“The surprise for me was that Hill did not take a bigger jump,” Burrell said. “However, Club for Growth doesn’t mean as much to Tennessee voters as it does voters in … some other southern states. It’s less impactful certainly than an NRA endorsement.”

Two former mayors, Steve Darden of Johnson City and John Clark of Kingsport, both moved up to within potential striking distance — Clark from 5.0 percent to 8.9 percent and Darden from 5.9 percent to 9.3 percent.

“I think Clark and Darden have positioned themselves to be a factor on election day,” Burrell said.

Going negative a double-edged sword?

Burrell said the attack ads that have run against Harshbarger, Hill, Crowe, Clark and Darden may or may not have hurt those candidates — and those who produce such ads may suffer a backlash.

Crowe, Darden and Clark have refrained from producing negative ads, while Gapp has produced at least one but not yet been the subject of one. Harshbarger has hit and been hit, while the PAC endorsing Hill has gone negative — the Club for Growth, which endorsed him in early July, has run negative ads against Harshbarger and Crowe.

Burrell said Crowe’s campaign team may have thought twice about going negative after seeing their gubernatorial candidate in the 2018 primary, Randy Boyd, get into a negative ad tussle with Diane Black.

“Crowe’s team has likely learned a lesson from the Randy Boyd race in which they got drawn into a knockdown drag out with Diane (Black) and it allowed Bill Lee to kind of split the seam,” Burrell said. “They’re learning some lessons and not getting drawn into a big fight.”

Candidates respond

Josh Gapp

Gapp told News Channel 11 he was humbled by the poll’s results. “It’s a tight race, everybody knows it’s a tight race but we’re surging,” he said. “Our numbers keep going up. We’re very happy with the performance that we’ve had.”

He said he believes his message — that political correctness is “a cancer” that is hurting America — is resonating with people. “It’s a genuine message,” he said. “We didn’t poll test this message. I ran because this was an issue I felt passionately about.”

State Senator Rusty Crowe sat down with News Channel 11’s Anslee Daniel Friday afternoon after the results were released.

Senator Rusty Crowe

“I’m really pleased that my 100% positive, optimistic message is getting through… is resonating through all the millions of dollars of negative, misleading ads that are being run against me,” Crowe said. “It’s a real negative when you see outside dollars like that coming in to try to influence a race and that’s exactly what’s happened here.”

Crowe says he has just been himself throughout the campaign process and that he hasn’t tried to follow in any previous campaign’s footsteps. He told Anslee that his campaign funds have come from within the state of Tennessee and that he has worked from the end of Sevier County all the way up to Mountain City.

“Harshbarger leads in dollars raised… those aren’t dollars raised. I’ve worked very hard to raise almost $400,000,” Crowe said. “It’s a real negative when you see outside dollars like that coming in to try to influence a race and that’s exactly what’s happened here.”

Harshbarger’s campaigned offered a statement saying that she continues to lead the race thanks to a “message of faith, selfless service to her neighbor, and belief in President Trump’s vision for America (that) quickly resonated with voters.”

Diana Harshbarger

The campaign said its internal polling shows Harshbarger winning and that “the enthusiasm on the ground confirms the numbers.” The campaign added that it’s confident voters will choose Harshbarger over Crowe, who it called “a Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush supporter who voted for the largest tax increase in state history, voted for higher sales taxes, and voted to give illegal immigrants free in-state tuition and drivers licenses.”

Hill’s campaign referred News Channel 11 to mention in a “Roll Call” article on the race of a Club for Growth poll that showed Hill leading, followed by Harshbarger and Crowe. All three were within the margin of error, the story said, though it didn’t reference the numbers specifically.

Timothy Hill

“All signs point to Timothy Hill being in strong position to be victorious next week, whether it’s other public polling showing him in the lead or the fact that he’s now under fire by other candidates and outside groups,” a Hill campaign statement read. 

“It’s clear that the momentum is with Timothy Hill because he’s the pro-life, pro-Trump candidate who will fight for our Christian conservative values in Washington, DC.”

Darden responded directly and cautioned against people reading much into the poll and said his campaign has been “building momentum each day.”

He also pointed to what he said were strong performances in two recent debates.

Steve Darden

“Our informal exit polling shows that my commanding debate performances last week and last night have been applauded by the voters,” Darden said. “They also noticed that the purported top three in WJHL’s poll have all no-showed in at least one of the two debates. My positive campaign will continue picking up steam and I expect to win.”

Harshbarger has skipped both debates — one July 23 in Blountville and one Thursday night in Sevierville — while Crowe skipped the Blountville debate and Hill skipped the Sevierville debate.

Clark responded directly and said with a tight race, “voters are going to reward the candidate who has run a positive campaign and has a positive record.

“As mayor I helped create jobs and grow our local economy. As Congressman, I’ll fight to get our economy going again and to defend our freedom from the leftist socialist Democrats in Washington.”

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