Sep 8, 2023, 12:42pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Gloria Johnson bets on abortion, guns to power an upset Tennessee win

Ray Di Pietro/Shutterstock

Sign up for Semafor Americana: An insider’s guide to American power. Read it now.

Title icon

The Subject

When Tennessee state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson took the state House floor to protest and demand a gun safety bill, state Rep. Gloria Johnson joined them. They were expelled from the chamber; by one vote, she wasn’t. But she traveled to D.C. with them — the “Tennessee Three,” Democrats in a deep red state who the national party embraced as heroes.

On Tuesday, Johnson announced a campaign for U.S. Senate, challenging freshman Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic senator since 1990. “I think we’ve gotten donations from all 50 states, and all Tennessee counties,” Johnson said in an interview, as she described the first days of her underdog campaign and what she planned to run on.

Title icon

The Interview

Americana: At your launch speech, you said that Phil Bredesen got within 10 points of Blackburn in 2018, you needed to close that gap, and a lot had changed since then. But Republicans did just fine in Tennessee last year. What can you point to that shows that voters want a change?

Gloria Johnson: What you have to understand about Tennessee is that most people didn’t understand that we had a full ban on abortion, ready to go. They were shocked and surprised when they found out. They found out, they got much more active, and now there’s a broad coalition for women’s autonomy and abortion care across Tennessee. Eighty percent of Tennesseans believe in abortion care at some level, even if we may not all agree on where that level is.

Americana: The Republican response to that is that Democrats don’t want any limits whatsoever on abortion. Do you want limits?


Gloria Johnson: You know what? I am fine with the Roe standard, 24 weeks. What we hear from our colleagues across the aisle is that Democrats want late term abortion. There’s no late term abortion — nobody decorates their nursery and then decides, oh, we don’t want to have the baby. When there’s a termination, we’re talking about severe complications for either the fetus or to the mother. Those are just tragic decisions that have to be made to save lives.

So, there’s 80% of us that support women’s bodily autonomy, and 80% of Tennesseans believe in gun sense legislation — urban, rural, suburban. I’m a gun owner. I have a gun. I plan on keeping that gun. However, we can keep the guns out of the hands of dangerous people and keep our communities and schools safe.

Americana: Why have Tennesseans been voting Republican if they agree with that?

Gloria Johnson: That’s what gerrymandering is about. They have chosen their voters instead of allowing the voters to choose their elected officials, so they can be extreme and motivate their extreme MAGA Republican base to turn out. They’re not concerned about winning a general election — all they care about is winning a primary. It’s not just gun violence and abortion that’s affected, it’s all of our education stuff – vouchers, privatizing public education, our third grade retention law, these are all extreme things that the majority of Tennesseans do not agree on, yet they do them anyway.

This time is different. I’m just a grassroots person. I’m very in touch with what is happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is amazing in Tennessee. You truly have a coalition coming together of people that haven’t worked together before. They’re coming together on things like Medicaid expansion, health care, and public schools. And what we’re doing is creating this multiracial, multigenerational coalition that will not be divided.


Americana: In 2018, Bredesen said that he would have voted for Brett Kavanaugh. The story at the time was that this killed Democratic enthusiasm. Is that how it looked to you?

Gloria Johnson: That is a fact. I have all the respect in the world for Gov. Bredesen, but I disagreed with that. I would absolutely have voted against him, and I wouldn’t have had to think twice about that. I’m a woman. I knew exactly what was at stake.

Americana: One of Sen. Blackburn’s priorities is the Kids Online Safety Act. Do you support it?

Gloria Johnson: I’ve absolutely got some serious questions about that. I’m concerned about what the true motives are. I’m going to have to read a lot more on the bill before I make a decision on it, because I’m concerned whether it’s targeting a certain group of people. With legislation like this, you need to think of all the different effects that it could have.

Americana: Maybe the most famous moment of Blackburn’s first term was when she asked Ketanji Brown Jackson if she could “define the word, woman.” How would you answer that question? What is a woman?

Gloria Johnson: What I would say is: It’s a human being who you have spent your career trying to deny full bodily rights to. But it’s kind of funny. They sent a tracker after me this week to ask me that question — a young man. And I told him: If you don’t know now, I don’t think I can help you.