(WJHL) – Kingsport pharmacist Diana Harshbarger handily topped a June 21-24 poll of contenders for the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s First Congressional District.
Harshbarger garnered the support of 22.4 percent of respondents in a poll completed by 800 likely voters and conducted by Spry Strategies. Early voting in the primary race to replace retiring Representative Dr. Phil Roe begins July 17 and the election is Aug. 6.
State Senator Rusty Crowe (Johnson City) was second at 14.0 percent, while State Representative Timothy Hill (Blountville) was the only other candidate to receive double digits with 11.3 percent.
Four candidates were bunched together fairly far behind Hill — State Representative David Hawk (Greeneville) was at 6.1 percent, former Johnson City mayor Steve Darden and Knoxville pathologist Dr. Josh Gapp were tied at 5.9 percent, and former Kingsport mayor John Clark was at 5.0 percent.
Only people who answered all 23 poll questions were considered “completes” and included in the final report. Those respondents listed the economy and job growth far above seven other issues as “most important.” They were overwhelmingly conservative (54 percent “very”, 31 percent “somewhat”) and the vast majority were over 55 years old.
Spry CEO Ryan Burrell said the response rate to the poll was “very big” and that people in the First Congressional District are excited about the first competitive race since 2008. Roe narrowly defeated one-term incumbent David Davis in the 2008 primary.
“One of the greatest things about this poll is excitement,” Burrell said. “People in CD1 are probably, you know for the most part they’re sad to see Phil go, but they’re ready to find another leader to support, and people want to send somebody to Washington that they feel like is not going to be a part of the swamp and they’re going to get things done.”
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points. The 800 likely voters who completed surveys 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.
Undecided voters totaled 21.4 percent, while Elizabethton’s Jay Adkins garnered 2.8 percent, Kingsport’s Nichole Williams 2.0 percent and “another candidate” (there are seven others) totaled 3.4 percent.
Burrell said he would normally expect a higher percentage of undecideds at this point in a primary race, pointing again to the lack of an incumbent, along with what he called a strong field.
“You’ve got a good mix of experienced politicians with successful conservative businessmen and women.
“People really haven’t been able to cast a vote in this congressional district in a good little while without it (being) a foregone conclusion. So now they’ve got real choices.”
A majority (54 percent) of respondents identified as very conservative, with 31 percent answering they were somewhat conservative and 12 percent moderate.
Strong approval for President Donald Trump’s job performance was 77 percent with overall approval at 87 percent. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s overall approval was similar, 88 percent, but not as intense with 53 percent strongly approving of his job performance.
Breaking down the details
The Spry poll included “cross-tabulation” information, allowing for more detailed analysis of where candidates ran strongest among women, education and income levels, and answers to questions about conservatism, issues, support for Trump and more.
Note: The cross-tab information includes data from people who may not have answered all questions and made it into the “complete” list, and lacks a small number of respondents who were polled late in the survey using direct calls.
The male female breakdown showed the most significant differences in support for Crowe, Harshbarger and Hawk, with the most notable point that Crowe polled better among men than he did women and the opposite was true for Harshbarger.
Harshbarger won 24.8 percent of the female vote and 17.9 percent of the male vote, while Crowe was at 17.5 percent among males and 12.9 percent among females.
Geographically, Harshbarger was strong across the board. She led Sullivan County with 28.7 percent, while fellow Sullivan countians Hill and Clark were at 17.7 and 10.6 percent there. She was also strong in Hamblen and Hawkins counties.
Hill led handily in Johnson County, which he represents in the state house, as did Hawk in Greene County. Crowe led Carter County with 29.0 percent and Washington County with 25.6 percent.
Of note, while Crowe was at just 8.5 percent in Sullivan County compared to Harshbarger’s 28.3, Harshbarger didn’t trail Crowe nearly as badly in his home base of Washington County where she was second at 14.6 percent.
The Trump effect and “strongly conservative”
While those who strongly approved of President Trump’s job performance tracked with overall candidate support, the few who strongly disapproved disproportionately favored Crowe (21.1 percent) and Darden (11.6 percent). Harshbarger was at just 1 percent with that group.
The trend was similar when it came to respondents’ self-identification as very or somewhat conservative, moderate, or somewhat or very liberal.
Harshbarger was at 27.8 percent among very conservative voters, with Crowe at 15.3 percent and Hill at 14.1.
Among those describing themselves as somewhat conservative or moderate — 320 total respondents compared to 418 very conservative — Crowe had 46 votes to Harshbarger’s 50 and was ahead among moderates 18-10. Many more respondents in the moderate and somewhat conservative camps were undecided (29.4 and 29.8 percent) than the 18.7 percent of very conservative respondents.
Age, income and education level were minimal factors.
The top concerns
Candidates who did better than their overall average among the 45 percent of people who listed jobs and the economy as their most important issue included Clark (7.5 percent) and Crowe (17 percent). Most were below but near their averages.
Illegal immigration, the second-ranked issue at 13 percent, was a strength for Harshbarger and Gapp, who were at 26.7 and 9.9 percent — decently above Harshbarger’s average and well above Gapp’s.
Healthcare was listed by 9 percent and was a strength for Crowe and Darden while it was Harshbarger’s weakest showing (7.9 percent).
Second Amendment Rights and racial tension were each selected by 8 percent of respondents as most important. Harshbarger (29.2 percent) and Hill (13.9 percent) exceeded their averages on Second Amendment while Crowe (8.3) percent was well off his average.
Harshbarger and Crowe both polled slightly above their averages on racial tension.
The right to life, a standard conservative issue, was selected by just 7 percent of respondents, but it was a winner for Hill. He won the support of 32.3 percent of those respondents, with Harshbarger at 29.0, Gapp at 8.0 and no one else above 5 percent.
Mixed results for those in the ad game
Harshbarger hit the TV airwaves first, followed by Clark, who released his first TV ad May 26. Hill released his first TV ad June 2, shortly before Gapp began TV spots.
Among the other candidates with the apparent resources to do so, Crowe, Darden and Hawk have yet to release TV ads. Crowe switched consultants a couple of weeks ago, and Burrell said a move upward by the early frontrunner in any additional polls wouldn’t surprise him.
Harshbarger’s lead corresponds with the highest name recognition among the field — something that skyrocketed compared to a January Spry poll of possible contenders for Roe’s seat. That poll included Crowe, Hill, Hawk, Darden, Clark and Harshbarger as well as eventual non-candidate Charles Allen.
At that point, with 790 people answering the “who would you vote for today” question, Harshbarger polled the lowest at 1.5 percent and Crowe led at 14.4 percent. Hill and Hawk were at 9.9 and 9.6 percent with Darden fourth at 5.2 percent and Clark at 2.4 percent. A full 53 percent were undecided.
Crowe had 44 percent name recognition, while Harshbarger certainly fit the description of a relative unknown, with 13 percent name recognition. Hill was at 33 percent, Hawk 26 percent, Darden 16 percent and Clark 15 percent.
Fast forward, and Harshbarger leads the pack in name recognition at 62 percent, Crowe has barely budged (46 percent) and Hill has increased to 41 percent. Late entrant Gapp is at 32 percent, Hawk at 31, Clark at 30 percent and Darden at 24 percent.
The largest increases in name recognition belong to the candidates who are advertising, led by Harshbarger, who was recognized by nearly five times as many respondents, Clark, recognized by twice as many, and presumably Gapp.
Not only do far more respondents know who Harshbarger is, those who do know her name view her more favorably than any other candidate. That’s a reversal from the January poll, when she was the only potential candidate with a negative favorability rating.
In January, 8.2 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Harshbarger and 4.6 percent viewed her favorably. Last week’s poll had her at 47.6 percent favorable and 13.9 percent unfavorable.
That 34-point “spread” doubled her nearest contender, Hill, who was viewed favorably by 28.8 percent and unfavorably by 12.4 percent. Crowe was next at 13, but had seen his favorability spread decline from 24 percent in January.
Put another way, 77 percent of respondents who recognized Harshbarger viewed her favorably. The other candidates’ numbers were 70 percent (Hill), 66 percent (Gapp), 64 percent (Crowe), 59 percent (Clark), 57 percent (Darden) and 53 percent (Hawk).
Since January, Crowe’s favorability percentage had actually decreased from 77 percent — with little increase in name recognition. Hill’s also had been at 77 percent in January, with Hawk’s at 69 percent. Clark’s percentage had increased from 51 percent in January to its current 59 percent.
Thoughts on the contenders
Based on what he knows about money, candidates’ “ground games,” other campaign infrastructure and their current bases of support, Burrell had a few observations.
With what he called a “very strong look,” a good logo in “Tennessee Tough,” an experienced campaign team and heavy advertising, Burrell said Harshbarger’s lead doesn’t surprise him.
The team and packaging, “coupled with the fact that she’s spent well over $150,000 on television already naturally makes her lead pretty predictable,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he expects a change in Crowe’s numbers once the eight-term Senator cranks up the advertising.
“When you look at the type of collateral that he needs versus what he has, the type of advertising that has been done thus far, that’s why there’s been a major change on the consulting front,” Burrell said. “And he’s got some people behind him now that you’re going to see a rise in the polls very very quickly.”
Gapp’s late entry into the race “is costing him more than it is some of the other guys (Hawk and Hill) that entered late,” Burrell said, primarily due voters’ greater familiarity with Hawk and Hill because of their legislative service. That said, Burrell said Gapp appears to have a strong campaign infrastructure and has been “on the ground.”
Burrell said he wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the top seven make a move. He called Hill and Hawk “x factors” at one point. He also said Clark’s relatively weak showing in this poll, despite about four weeks of television at that point, wasn’t necessarily cause for doom and gloom.
“The issue set favors him quite a bit,” Burrell said. “The economy jobs came in 45 percent. The flip side is that favors Diana too.”
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