Opinion: Johnson, Bradshaw candidacies show voters have viable choices

Photo/George Walker IV/The Associated Press / Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, announces her candidacy for U.S. Senate during an event on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Who wants one strong Democrat woman running for the U.S. Senate when you can have two?

After much anticipation, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, announced her campaign for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate during a Tuesday public appearance.

The state representative catapulted to statewide and national attention earlier this year amid a chaotic, controversial Tennessee General Assembly session. In April, Johnson, state Reps. Justin Johnson and Justin Pearson participated in a protest in the House chamber; for their actions, Johnson and Pearson were expelled from the House (voters ultimately returned them to office). The "Tennessee Three," as they were called, tapped into voters fed up with the status quo in the GOP supermajority legislature and its failure to act on gun reform in the wake of a mass shooting in March that killed three adults and three children at a private Christian school in Nashville.

Johnson is ready to fight for the progressive movement in the Volunteer State.

"I'm 6'3". I'm not afraid to stand up to anyone when it comes to doing what's right for Tennessee, especially Marsha Blackburn," she said.

It will indeed be a tall order for Johnson to defeat the Republican incumbent from Brentwood.

But one thing is for sure, Johnson has Blackburn's attention.

Only hours after Johnson's announcement, Blackburn posted a campaign video, warning viewers about her opponent.

"I officially have an opponent," Blackburn said in the video. "She's a far left Democrat, she's as woke as they come and she knows all the liberal bigwigs in Tennessee. Frankly, my opponent is a threat to our way of life."

Blackburn's response aligns with her "save the gas grills from the woke mob" persona on Twitter, but uploading a video only hours after Johnson's announcement shows even she knows anger and frustration among Democrats and other voters should not be taken lightly.

And so do her Republican colleagues.

"There are now two socialists challenging (Marsha Blackburn)," U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty said in a X (formerly Twitter) post on Tuesday. "Make no mistake, either one of them would just be a puppet for the socialist Biden/Schumer agenda."

If you think this tired-out game of "who's the most socialist" is something Republicans only throw at Democrats, think again. When Hagerty ran for the U.S. Senate in 2020 against Dr. Manny Sethi, he nicknamed him "Massachusetts Manny" because of his time at Harvard Medical School; he claimed the doctor was "too liberal for Tennessee."

This time around, voters must show that they won't fall for the GOP's lame, one-trick "woke" pony propaganda.

Is 'Tennessee Three' fame enough?

Democrats have the energy, the motivation and desire to give incumbent Marsha Blackburn a run for her money.

In an Aug. 31 interview, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus sees parallels between the excitement building from the Tennessee Three to the high energy behind the campaign of another charismatic politician.

"I haven't seen this much excitement since Harold Ford Jr.," Remus said about how the Tennessee Three have energized voters. Ford, a Democrat from Memphis, served in the U.S. House from 1997-2007. In November 2006, then-Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker defeated him in a hard-fought race to succeed Republican Sen. Bill Frist.

Johnson, along with Jones and Pearson, have spoken about how they have cultivated a multiracial, inter-generational movement that stemmed from the fiery debate and protests over gun safety during the legislative session.

The notoriety from what transpired at the April protest at the Capitol and then the expulsion vote hearings certainly will be used as a springboard for Johnson to get her message across. But the issue of gun safety isn't her only focus.

In her campaign announcement, Johnson highlighted reproductive rights as one of her main priorities.

"We need to talk about women's rights here. Women in Tennessee are no longer equal," Johnson told a crowd of supporters in Nashville. "Young girls are forced to carry a pregnancy for a rapist. And Marsha Blackburn wants to see a federal ban on abortion? Yet she's talking about freedom? Freedom for who?"

Johnson will have at least one viable primary opponent in Marquita Bradshaw. She might've surprised the rest of Tennessee with her 2020 U.S. Senate Democratic primary win over hopeful James Mackler, but the environmental activist received huge support from the Memphis area. Next year, Bradshaw will need to expand her message across the state to win.

The people set the tone

The 2024 Senate campaign is not just about Johnson, Bradshaw or Blackburn.

It's about the people. It's about proving to the rest of the country that vague, baseless attacks won't hand you an election. It's about showing politicians that issues such as gun safety should not be seen through a partisan lens (according to a Vanderbilt University poll, 72% of Tennessee voters support a red-flag law to prevent gun-related violence, for example).

Bradshaw and Johnson have shown that the progressive movement has a pulse in Tennessee. When you dig under "radical leftist" and "woke" labels, you'll see two candidates who want to work for the people of this state.

Next year, Tennesseans must decide what they care about most: the issues or political gaslighting.