Where Things Stand: The One Tennessee Three-er The GOP Failed To Expel Weighs Blackburn Challenge

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 24: (L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Pearson depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President... WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 24: (L-R) Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and state Rep. Justin Pearson depart the White House to speak with members of the press after meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden met with the three state representatives known as the "Tennessee Three" to discuss ongoing efforts to ban assault weapons. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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The retired school teacher who ultimately survived an expulsion vote brought by her Republican colleagues in the Tennessee state House earlier this year — part of an effort that did ultimately expel two of her younger, Black colleagues — is reportedly planning to challenge Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) for her seat next year.

No Democrat has won a statewide race since 2006, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen secured his reelection. But a face-off between Blackburn — who has a history of staunch opposition to tightening gun control — and state Rep. Gloria Johnson, (D) whose expulsion vote was predicated on her support for children and parents protesting lax gun laws in the state legislature, could test the energizing power of gun reform in a state recently racked by a deadly school shooting.

It was that very school shooting in Nashville, which left three children and three school staff members dead, that sparked mass protests inside and around the state Capitol this spring. Johnson and two of her colleagues — Democrats and young Black Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — encouraged those protests, and were swiftly punished for doing so.

Jones and Pearson were expelled from the state House, and Johnson, who is white, only survived her expulsion vote because a few Republicans leaned into racist tropes and claimed that she behaved more calmly than the two young Black men. The expulsions were subsequently and justifiably described as “white supremacist-led” attacks on the two young men.

While Johnson did not confirm her reported plans to launch a bid against Blackburn to the state newspaper, The Tennessean, the news outlet reports today that the Democrat from Knoxville is putting together a campaign team and is expected to announce her bid “within weeks.” One other Democrat, a climate activist with name recognition in the state, Marquita Bradshaw, has announced her bid for the seat as well.

If Johnson were to win the Democratic nomination she would face Blackburn, an incumbent who makes more headlines for bombastic tweets than serious Senate work. Notably, despite pushing for amendments to the legislation that would’ve encouraged the hiring of veterans and ex-law enforcement officials as school resource officers, Blackburn voted against a bipartisan gun reform bill last summer that had the support of 15 of her Republican colleagues.

If you don’t recall the specifics, my colleague Emine Yücel covered the events surrounding the expulsion votes and the aftermath relentlessly for weeks earlier this spring. My colleagues Josh Marshall and Kate Riga also did a special podcast episode on the events that transpired as well, as a marker of the ongoing establishment of minority control in GOP-held statehouses in the country.

Our coverage of the episode began as Josh Marshall and I noted a broader trend breaking out among Republicans at the time of downplaying the Jan. 6 insurrection by comparing peaceful protests to an insurrection. After Johnson, Jones and Pearson broke decorum and cheered on protesters from the House floor earlier this spring, their Republican colleagues accused them of participating in a form of insurrection. The racist expulsion votes quickly followed.

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