JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A recent scientific poll found them lagging well behind the front runners, but four Tennessee First Congressional District Republican primary candidates told News Channel 11 they remain hopeful about their shot at winning the Aug. 6 primary.
David Hawk, Steve Darden, Dr. Josh Gapp and John Clark all were clustered between 5.0 and 6.1 percent in the poll conducted June 21-24 by Spry Strategies, a Knoxville firm. That placed them well behind poll leader Diana Harshbarger, a Kingsport pharmacist, and significantly behind early frontrunner Rusty Crowe, a state senator from Johnson City.
Harshbarger was at 22.4 percent and Crowe at 14.0, with State Representative Timothy Hill (Blountville) third at 11.3 percent. The poll of 800 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.0 percent.
Clark: Poll inaccurate, momentum building
Clark has advertised more on television than the other three – though Gapp began a heavy rotation in mid-June. The former Kingsport mayor, a retired corporate executive, said he believes the poll results belied the reality.
“We all know that polls are not always accurate, and I don’t think this poll’s accurate by any stretch,” Clark said. “And the reason why I say that with confidence is because it’s not reflective of what I’m sensing and feeling out there on the campaign trail. I’m feeling excitement and energy around my messaging.”
Clark, in seventh at 5.0 percent, said his path to victory is to continue his message, which he said “is to protect and preserve freedoms that under attack by leftist socialist Democrats and providing the opportunity to bring back jobs and get the economy on track.”
Clark said he believes he’s in the top three currently and that people are attracted to his blend of business and public service background.
“Because of my track record, they’re sensing that I can bring those experiences and backgrounds together to really make a positive difference in their lives in terms of improving their quality of life and also ensuring a prosperous future for our region.”
He referenced Kingsport’s population growth during his mayoral term, which he said came while the city balanced its budget and kept taxes low, as an example of the kind of results his leadership could produce. “We’ll be reaching voters any way we can and we have a lot of momentum going into the last two to four weeks,” Clark said. “I think I’m going to win.”
Darden: ‘Sweet spot’ between career politician and inexperience
An attorney and the former mayor of Johnson City, Darden said he brought a different background than most of the candidates — one with the right mix of government leadership experience and small business ownership.
“That combination is extremely valuable,” Darden said. “We call that a Darden difference. I occupy that sweet spot between having served as a career politician which several people in this race have done and having zero experience.”
He called the poll results “predictable.”
“It shows that the career politicians (presumably Crowe, Hill and Hawk) are leading with name recognition, which is not surprising given their 54 years of cumulative service in these government positions,” Darden said.
“It also shows that unknowns who have spent enormous amounts of their own personal wealth have managed to use TV advertising to become well known too.”
Darden said as he works on the ground in all 12 First District counties, he’s encountering people who realize he has the right mix of skills to best serve the district’s constituents in Washington. He also plans to ramp up television advertising soon, but said the face-to-face approach is a strength for him.
“I’ve been out meeting voters, making contacts, connecting with people one on one,” Darden said. “I think when people are reminded and remember how much I accomplished on the city council and as mayor in Johnson City, I’ll rise in the polls no doubt.
Darden also said he’d be a relationship builder if sent to Washington, and that he’d take each member of government’s ideas — up to the president’s — and weigh them on their merits as opposed to reflexively supporting something to fit with the party line.
“I’m the one who can “move the needle” for our area,” Darden, who has worked in economic development and as a mediator, said. “I’ve got the professionalism, the preparation and the passion to do that and I think I’m the best choice for our district.
“I think that the personal contacts I have made are gonna pay off big time.”
Hawk: Policy expertise and person-to-person appeal
Hawk has served 18 years as a state house member and said he’s able to connect with people on the campaign trail by making the importance of policies on daily life understandable to them.
He said he’s seen that people have had “other things on their minds” during the last couple of months and that those other things make good policy crucial.
“I think folks are worried about school starting back, they’re worried about their income, their worried about their families, they’re worried about their health,” Hawk said. “It’s going to be difficult to reach them on a political level to say, ‘oh yes, and early voting starts July 17th, I need you to vote for me.'”
It’s policy, and someone who understands policy and can craft it, that will address those concerns in a way that can help people, Hawk said.
“You need a Congressman who … knows how to mesh everyday life with good voting and good public policy like I’ve done for the last 18 years, so that’s a key message we’re going to deliver over the next five weeks.”
Hawk said he does well in the meetings that are beginning to finally ramp up, and that he believes every “influencer” won over at that type of event can be worth up to 20 votes. And he said he believes Harshbarger’s performance in those types of non-scripted settings could hurt her.
“Having the bully pulpit of being on TV on a regular basis she gets to pre-package that message. I think that as people see the candidate and the lack of understanding of the 100 of different issues that we’re having to deal with, that creates a vulnerability there.”
Hawk said he’s working hard in the counties that none of the candidates is from, including Hawkins, Cocke, Sevier and Hamblen. He believes he’s making good inroads.
The poll, he said, offered “no real surprises and does not deter me from the race. “We’re still going to work hard in taking our issues that are important to Northeast Tennesseans to the public.”
Gapp: People want someone who will stand up against political correctness
A political neophyte who’s said he’s willing to spend his own money to get his message across, Gapp said he’s encouraged by the poll results. He said his current level of support shows that making opposition to political correctness a fundamental campaign issue is a worthwhile strategy.
“We’ve gone from zero name ID a few months ago to 6 percent (support) in your poll and I think it reflects that it’s an important issue to Northeast Tennessee,” Gapp said.
Gapp stood fourth in the poll in name recognition, at 32 percent.
“People want to stand up, they want to be heard, and we are offering them that chance,” said Gapp, whose campaign material calls political correctness “a cancer on society.”
Gapp said he’s got a good team in place, that he’s busy meeting voters out on the campaign trail and that all his internal benchmarks for the campaign are being met. On the trail, while he’s willing to talk policy, Gapp said he continues to promote his message that those he says are the champions of political correctness need to be opposed.
“They’re trying to erase our history,” Gapp said. “They’re trying to destroy the very foundations upon which our country was made on and you know, we’ve got to stand up, and people recognize that.”
Gapp said he does not expect a runaway race.
“I think at the end of the day it’s going to be a tight race, I think there’s going to be a lot of candidates at the top and hopefully, God willing we’ll be there in first place. But time will tell.”