Yager defends record, calls for border wall during Scott County campaign stop

Gun Rights

HUNTSVILLE  |  “Voting for president is incredibly important. I’m telling you it is just as important, and maybe more important, to vote for the right state senator.”

That was the message Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, had for a small group of voters assembled on the courthouse mall here Wednesday afternoon.

Johnson’s pick for the right state senator — and the reason he was in Scott County in the first place — is Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who is campaigning for a fifth term in Nashville representing the 12th Senate District.

State Sen. Ken Yager greets Mike Keeton at a campaign stop in Huntsville on Friday, July 10, 2024 | Ben Garrett/IH

In ordinary times, Yager’s re-election might be considered a foregone conclusion. Since winning a bruising campaign against former Morgan County Executive Becky Ruppe in 2008, Yager has never faced opposition in his bids for re-election.

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But these are not ordinary times. And the mere fact that a Yager campaign event was being held in Huntsville on Wednesday illustrated the battle for the soul of the Tennessee Republican Party that is currently being waged.

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Incumbent lawmakers typically don’t face primary opposition from members of their own party, instead enjoying a cake-walk to the general election, where they may or may not face opposition from the opposing party. (Yager, in fact, has not faced opposition from a Democratic candidate in any of his re-election bids in 2012, 2016 or 2020.)

This year is different. Yager has drawn a primary challenge from a Republican in his hometown: Teena Hedrick, a nurse practitioner from Kingston, is seeking to unseat Yager.

And Yager isn’t alone. Several other incumbent Republicans in the Senate are also being targeted, including Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville, Ferrell Haile of Gallatin, and Jon Lundberg in upper East Tennessee.

Collectively, the Republican challengers are attempting to portray the incumbents as not being conservative enough. They’re buoyed by support from The Tennessee Conservative, a right-wing website that has labeled Yager, Massey, and others, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Oak Ridge, as “RINOs” — a popular acronym that stands for “Republican In Name Only.”

In some instances, the races have turned nasty. In the upper East Tennessee race, there have been accusations of ethics violations by challenger Bobby Harshbarger, the son of a U.S. congresswoman who is running against Lundberg. In April, Yager asked the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics & Campaign Finance to look into ties between Harshbarger and the East Tennessee Conservatives PAC. The request followed text messages sent by the PAC related to Lundberg’s voting record. Yager said in his letter to the ethics committee that the PAC and Harshbarger’s mother — U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger — share a campaign treasurer. The ethics committee has since asked the Tennessee Attorney General’s office to investigate.

At Wednesday’s campaign stop, Yager shrugged off the primary challenge against him.

“I’m going to win this race. I’m winning this race. Our polls show I’m winning this race,” Yager said.

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State Sen. Ken Yager speaks during a campaign stop in Huntsville on Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Ben Garrett/IH

Still, the all-out efforts to unseat some of the Tennessee’s highest-ranking Republicans — Yager is chairman of the Senate Republican caucus, and was once rumored to be a candidate for the state’s lieutenant governor’s office — isn’t unnoticed. Yager’s campaign stop in Scott County was sandwiched by stops in Jamestown and Jacksboro that are part of a multi-day, district-wide “Get Out The Vote Truck Tour.” Yager has been joined at other stops by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. In Scott County, he was joined by Majority Leader Johnson and Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro.

For the most part, incumbent Republicans have dismissed the efforts of The Tennessee Conservative and the candidates who are attempting to upset the apple cart. “They’re not interested in the party’s agenda; they’re interested in their own agenda,” is how one lawmaker put it. The incumbents point to their legislative record, which has been blasted by Democrats as too conservative. This past session, the Republican-led legislature banned abortion except in cases of life or death for the mother, and outlawed gender-affirming care for trans youths. Yager sponsored legislation that makes child rapists eligible for the death penalty.

The Tennessee Conservative and other advocates for ousting the incumbents have attempted to paint a picture of true conservatives vs. a Republican establishment that is fighting to maintain a stranglehold on the party in Nashville.

The legitimacy of that picture would depend on a loose definition of “establishment.” Yager has the support of Gov. Lee, who was elected in 2018 as a political outsider, the owner of an HVAC business who himself upset the establishment by coming out of nowhere to defeat Randy Boyd and Congresswoman Diane Black in a tightly-contested primary.

And, in Livingston on Tuesday, Yager was joined by Mayor Jacobs, the former WWE wrestler better known as Kane who also won election in Knox County as a political outsider with a libertarian bent and is now a favorite to succeed Lee as Tennessee’s next governor.

Sen. Ken Yager chats with 7th District Scott County Commissioner Jared Burke during a campaign stop in Huntsville on Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Ben Garrett/IH

Yager also has a coalition of support that includes endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the Tennessee Right To Life, and the Tennessee State Employees Association. The latter is a group that includes Scott County native Lisa Hogue Moffett as its Member Services Director.

In addition to being flanked by Sen. Johnson and Sen. White, Yager was joined Wednesday by Aaron Gulbranson, executive director of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition. In another blow to the “establishment argument,” Gulbranson was wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat that is familiar to supporters of former President Donald Trump, and applauded Yager’s efforts to pass the legislation making child rapists eligible for the death penalty.

However, the targeted incumbents have made it clear that their biggest fear is voter apathy. As Yager and his guests mentioned “voter turnout” over and over at Wednesday’s event, the crowd that showed up underscored just how big an issue that could be.

Yager is accustomed to drawing capacity crowds for his town hall meetings in Scott County. At the courthouse mall on Wednesday, the crowd was so small that it could fit inside the gazebo. Scott County Mayor Jerried Jeffers was there, as was County Clerk Felicia Bilbrey and County Attorney John Beaty, along with 7th District County Commissioner Jared Burke. There was a small group representing Scott Appalachian Industries, along with S.T.A.N.D. Executive Director Trent Coffey and Howard Baker’s longtime assistant, Fred Marcum, among others. For the most part, though, the crowd was sparse.

Weather may have been partly to blame. The skies were threatening and rain drops sprinkled the ground before the sun finally popped out as Yager spoke.

Also, it was Yager’s second campaign appearance in Scott County in the past three weeks. He earlier appeared for a meet-and-greet at First National Bank, which was well-attended.

Still, it is an off-year election in Scott County and most other Tennessee counties. With no local races to drive voter turnout in August, Republicans fear what could happen if voters stay home.

“When you have a low turnout, things can happen,” Yager said. “And we don’t want that to happen.”

Yager called on his supporters in Scott County to take a pledge to ask 10 other people to vote during the early voting period, which begins Friday, or on Aug. 1.

Majority Leader Johnson echoed Yager’s concern.

“My concern is we are so focused on the presidential election that we’re overlooking August,” he said. “It’s important that you tell your friends, people that you go to church with, to get out and vote. It’s important that Ken comes back for us, for the state of Tennessee. He’s way ahead in the polls but we can’t take that for granted.”

Sen. White also endorsed Yager. “We need him back in Nashville,” she said. “Tennessee needs him back, and I assure you Scott County needs him back in Nashville.”

Yager touted the successes Tennessee has enjoyed under the current Republican leadership, including a series of tax cuts and financial independence. “We don’t borrow money in Tennessee,” he said. He also highlighted issues that lie ahead, some of which he said are federal in nature.

“We have a very serious problem with immigration,” Yager said, adding that an influx of illegal immigrants has turned Tennessee into a “border state.”

“I support immigration,” he said. “My family generations ago came here — legally. (And) that’s all we ask.”

Yager said the lax control of the southern border is impacting Scott County and other rural communities through the influx of fentanyl, the deadly street drug that is as much as 40 times more potent than heroin.

State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, is flanked by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, as he speaks at a campaign event in Huntsville on Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Ben Garrett/IH

“It’s a very dangerous drug that is killing people. It’s killing people in Scott County,” Yager said, as Coffey — whose S.T.A.N.D. organization is on the front lines of combatting drug abuse in Scott County — nodded in agreement. “It’s made in communist China, shipped to Mexico, and brought over our southern border. We have got to stop that.”

Yager added that a border wall — a cause championed by Trump during his term in the White House, though largely unaccomplished — must be built.

“We have got to control the people who are coming into our country,” he said. “We have to control our sovereignty and provide a method for people who want to come into our country to do so.”

Yager applauded Tennessee’s efforts in securing the border, pointing out that the state recently sent 1,000 national guardsmen to Texas to help defend the border.

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