Member of ‘Tennessee Three’ Takes Step Toward Challenging GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
August 22, 2023Politics
Member of ‘Tennessee Three’ Takes Step Toward Challenging GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn
(L–R) State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson arrive at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., on April 7, 2023. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)

Democrat Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson, who caught national recognition for taking part in a protest on the House floor of the state Capitol earlier this spring, is exploring a potential run for the state’s U.S. Senate seat in 2024.

Ms. Johnson, 61, filed the paperwork (pdf) to register a federal campaign exploratory committee earlier this month. The move is a common precursor to an official campaign launch and allows a prospective candidate to raise some money for travel and polling without officially becoming a candidate.

Ms. Johnson’s federal election committee paperwork indicates that she is specifically exploring a run for the Senate in 2024, which would pit her directly against Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who has already filed her own paperwork (pdf) to run for a second term.

“Tennessee has a Senator that stands with bullies, I have a reputation for standing up to bullies,” Ms. Johnson said in a recent statement, while avoiding naming Ms. Blackburn directly. “I’m taking a serious look at this race and having great conversations with folks who are hungry for better leadership in Washington.”

Lawmaker Played Role in ‘Tennessee Three’ Incident

Ms. Johnson has long been a vocal critic of Ms. Blackburn and other top Tennessee Republican leaders during her time in office, but now appears to be mulling the Senate run after boosting her national profile during a protest incident on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives this spring. In March, Ms. Johnson and two other Democratic state lawmakers broke the decorum rules of the chamber by rushing to the floor without recognition and leading protesters in the House gallery in chants calling for gun control.

The gun control protest in the Tennessee state capitol took place just days after an individual, who police alleged identified as transgender, entered the Covenant private Christian school and killed six people, including three children.

After the gun control protest, the Republican majority in the state House introduced resolutions to remove Ms. Johnson and the other two lawmakers who took part in the incident, Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis. The Republican majority successfully voted to expel Mr. Jones and Mr. Peason, but the expulsion vote against Ms. Johnson failed by one vote.

Supporters of the three Democratic lawmakers who led the protest on the House floor dubbed them the “Tennessee Three.”

President Joe Biden weighed in on the controversy after the expulsion vote, characterizing the actions of Mr. Jones, Mr. Pearson, and Ms. Johnson as a “peaceful protest,” calling the Republican-led expulsion effort “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” and raising his own calls for new gun control measures after the Covenant school shooting.

President Biden subsequently invited the three Tennessee Democrats to the White House, where Ms. Johnson reported they all discussed a range of gun control proposals.

Despite the expulsion vote, Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson continued to serve in the Tennessee state House on an interim basis and were reinstated earlier this month in local special elections.

Republicans Hold Advantage in Tennessee Politics

While Ms. Johnson has seen her name boosted by her recent actions, she still faces tough odds in Tennessee, a state that has consistently voted Republican in recent years. In fact, the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office since 2006, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen won a second term in office

Ms. Blackburn won her first Senate race in 2018, when she defeated Mr. Bredesen by almost 11 percentage points.

Along with Ms. Johnson, Democratic community organizer Marquita Bradshaw has also announced plans to run for Ms. Blackburn’s seat in 2024. Ms. Bradshaw won the Democratic Senate primary in 2020 but lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) in the general election by 27 percentage points in the general election.

“At the urging of Washington liberals, Gloria Johnson has taken another critical step towards joining liberal Democrat Marquita Bradshaw in the Tennessee Senate Democratic Primary,” Ms. Blackburn’s campaign spokesperson, Abigail Sigler, said in a press statement. “Both of them are radical socialists who are aligned with Joe Biden’s failed policies that are making Tennesseans’ lives tougher every day.”