One of ‘Tennessee Three’ to run for U.S. Senate

Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, hugs Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, as Johnson announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate during an event Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, hugs Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, as Johnson announces her candidacy for the U.S. Senate during an event Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat who skyrocketed to national fame after surviving a Republican-led expulsion effort for participating in a gun control demonstration, on Tuesday formally announced that she's running for the U.S. Senate.

Johnson, 61, is running for a seat currently held by Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, 71, who is seeking reelection in a state that has solely elected GOP statewide candidates for nearly two decades.

"Tennessee deserves better. Hardworking Tennessee families need someone who will fight for them and not just the billionaires and corporations and the wealthy and the well-connected," Johnson said at a campaign stop in Nashville.

In April, just days after a school shooting that killed 6 people, Johnson joined fellow Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones as they walked to the front of the state House floor with a bullhorn. The trio joined the chants and cries for gun control legislation by protesters in the public galleries and outside of the chamber.

The violation of House protocols quickly sparked outrage among Republican lawmakers, who demanded they be expelled for violating House rules -- a punishment that had only been used a handful of times since Reconstruction.

The showdown between the Democratic lawmakers and the Republican supermajority attracted national attention, amplifying the profiles of the group -- dubbed the "Tennessee Three" -- across the U.S. Their supporters pointed to their censure as the latest front in the battle for the future of American democracy.

Pearson and Jones, who are both Black, were expelled, while Johnson, who is white, was spared by one vote. Shortly after the expulsion vote, Johnson quickly noted that she avoided expulsion likely because she was white. Republicans denied that race was a factor. Instead, they said some members may have been persuaded that she wasn't as disruptive as Jones or Pearson. Both men have since been reelected to their positions.

Blackburn first won the Tennessee Senate seat in 2018, defeating Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen by almost 11 percentage points.

Blackburn was the first female Senator elected by Tennessee voters. The race also marked a noticeable rightward shift in the state's political landscape in a state previously known for electing centrist politicians.

Blackburn launched her senate campaign by touting that she was a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative" and aligned herself closely to former President Donald Trump. She is currently endorsing Trump in the 2024 presidential race.

In the Democratic primary for the Senate seat, Johnson will face off against community activist and organizer Marquita Bradshaw. Bradshaw won the Democratic Senate nomination in 2020, and lost the general election to Republican Bill Hagerty by 27 percentage points.

"It's no surprise that radical socialist Gloria Johnson decided to jump into the race at the urging of liberals in Washington, joining Marquita Bradshaw and others in the race for the Democratic nomination," said Blackburn's campaign spokesperson, Abigail Sigler. "State Rep. Johnson is as woke as they come, and she would be a puppet for Joe Biden, the Squad, and Chuck Schumer in the Senate."

Blackburn later released a campaign video criticizing Johnson, saying that the Democrat was a "threat to our way of life" in Tennessee.

Standing in Nashville next to a suffrage monument surrounded by several hundred supporters, Johnson said she chose the location because she believes women's rights are under attack in Tennessee. She pointed to the state's abortion ban, which has very few exemptions for pregnant women, as the key example of Republicans implementing dangerous policies.

"We got to talk about the fact (that) Tennessee women are no longer equal, young girls will be forced to carry a pregnancy from a rapist, that's what people are saying," Johnson said, adding that Blackburn supports a federal abortion ban.

Blackburn has supported efforts to implement a 20-week abortion ban. She hasn't said whether she supports a push by GOP U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham to pass a 15-week federal abortion ban.

Last year, Blackburn recorded a video message calling the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that gave married couples the right to birth control "constitutionally unsound." She was not proposing restrictions on birth control but hasn't commented further to clarify what she meant.

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