Tennessee Republicans could change law to prevent Democrat from running in two elections at once

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Less than a year after Tennessee Republicans attempted to expel her from the state House, Democrat Gloria Johnson is seeking another term there while simultaneously waging an uphill campaign for U.S. Senate.

Republicans are trying to force her to choose one.

Voters might do a double take seeing a name twice on a ballot. But Tennessee and other states allow certain dual runs, and there have been prominent examples of them.

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Republican state lawmakers are now considering a bill that would ban candidates like Johnson from appearing on the ballot multiple times for different offices in one election. It would also prohibit holding multiple elected offices at once.

Efforts to change the rules about how many times someone can seek office are usually ripe with consequences for political allies and enemies.

Just four years ago in Tennessee, Republican state Rep. David Hawk ran for reelection and Congress, landing back in the Legislature after losing the federal race. With Johnson’s double bid, she hopes to upset Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, while running again in her Knoxville district.

Tennessee Rep. Gloria Johnson is seen announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate on Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, File)

Johnson isn’t buying arguments from the bill’s Republican backers that she didn’t inspire the proposed change to a longstanding law.

“That’s just a lie, because I kept hearing over the summer that if I ran, there would be a bill,” Johnson said, “And so I kept letting people know I just might run. And sure enough, there’s a bill.”

If Tennessee adds the restrictions, it would follow other states that largely bar someone from running for multiple offices in the same election — among them, Kentucky, Montana, Kansas and Oklahoma. Still, states with those limitations offer a safety net for running for a higher office in a different election year than when their seat is up for reelection.

The change would still stop short of so-called resign-to-run laws in place in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia and Texas, which work differently but generally prohibit current officeholders from running for another office while holding their current office, according to Uyen Vong of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Even in states that restrict double runs, political decisionmakers at times have carved out exceptions to help candidates.

Florida lawmakers last year gave Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis a clear path to remain governor during his run for president.

When Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was a presidential candidate in the 2016 election cycle, he helped convince Kentucky GOP leaders to switch from a presidential primary to an earlier caucus. That prevented him from appearing multiple times on one ballot in a state that bans it. Ultimately, Paul left the presidential race before the caucus.

Democratic-run New Jersey changed its laws in 2018 to clarify that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker could run for president and reelection in 2020.

Former U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan was on the 2012 ballot in Wisconsin for congressional reelection and as Republican Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate. Similarly, former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman ran for Senate reelection in Connecticut in 2000 while he was Democrat Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate.

Blackburn’s campaign has cited Johnson’s dual candidacy in Tennessee to question the strength of her candidacy. Johnson has a contested primary election.

“If Gloria Johnson truly believes she will win the Democratic primary and general election in November, why is she running for both seats?” said Abigail Sigler, Blackburn’s campaign manager.

Republican state lawmakers who favor the ban have argued that winning twice often means abandoning the lower office, creating a costly special election. They contend serving in multiple offices can create abuse of power.

If she wins both races, Johnson would likely head to Washington and resign from the statehouse. She won her 2022 reelection by nearly 16 percentage points.

“She needs to choose what she’s really interested in and not use one as a safety provision in case she loses the higher office,” said Tennessee Senate Speaker Randy McNally.

Johnson narrowly escaped expulsion last year for her role in a pro-gun control protest inside the Tennessee House chamber.

The April demonstration came just days after a shooter opened fire at The Covenant School, killing three children and three adults. Johnson joined Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones in the front of the House without permission with a bullhorn, joining chants by protesters in the public gallery and outside the chamber.

Pearson and Jones, who are both Black, were expelled. Johnson, who is white, was spared by one vote after her legal team argued her role was lesser, noting she didn’t use the bullhorn. Jones and Pearson have since been reappointed and reelected. They were dubbed the “Tennessee Three” and drew national attention and fundraising.

Republican lawmakers are considering changes that target Jones and Pearson, too. One proposes a constitutional amendment to keep expelled lawmakers from serving again for four years. Another would prevent local governments from reappointing lawmakers booted for behavior.

In California, a judge ruled Republican state Assemblymember Vince Fong could run for Congress and reelection to his state seat at the same time. Democratic Secretary of State Shirley Weber is appealing that ruling. Meanwhile, two Democratic lawmakers have authored related legislation.

One bill would clarify candidates can’t file paperwork for two offices in the same election. The other says if candidates file for a second office in the same election, they would automatically be withdrawn from the first office.

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Pennsylvania has likewise seen complications from lawmakers running simultaneously for reelection and higher office.

In late 2022, two just reelected state House Democrats resigned their seats after winning higher office — temporarily throwing a one-seat House Democratic majority into disarray and fomenting a weekslong power struggle.

A Republican-penned bill to ban the practice has gone nowhere in the House. Before the Feb. 13 deadline, no fewer than four House members running for reelection are expected to file to run for a second office in the spring primary election.

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