Moments before Courtney Rogers was declared the winner in last Thursday's hotly contested 45th District House race, a reporter asked her if she knew the name of the four-piece string band plucking and strumming away on the dais at her victory party.
"I'm sorry, but no, I don't," said a smiling Rogers, adding that one of the members gives her daughter music lessons.
For the record, the band's name is A Step Ahead, and they can play a mean mandolin. But after observing the scene at Rogers' Aug. 2 primary victory headquarters at Sumner County's Millersville Community Center, the meme that Rogers was several steps removed from her campaign wouldn't seem to die — no matter how hard her surrogates said otherwise.
"For those of you who may think, or may have believed, stories about [Rogers] being manufactured or being drug into the campaign, all of that is completely untrue," said Jeff Hartline, Rogers' bowtie-clad campaign manager — whose number, Rogers said, is programmed into her phone under the name "Darth Vader."
Yet in the same speech, Hartline said Rogers, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, was "drafted" into the race and that Rogers "heeded the call, and she went about the business of [figuring out] how to do what others were asking her to do."
On the very night Rogers bested four-term incumbent House GOP caucus chair Debra Maggart 4,643 to 3,444, many supporters felt compelled to beat back the notion that Rogers — who benefited from $75,000 in outside spending on her behalf by the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action — is an empty vessel for Second Amendment interests, furious with Maggart's lack of support for controversial gun legislation in the most recent General Assembly.
Supporters (including Rogers' pastor) said that narrative was nothing more than a falsehood, and the race had nothing to do with revenge over Maggart's lack of enthusiasm for the NRA's so-called "guns in parking lots" bill during the last legislative session. But Tennessee Firearm Association president John Harris, who attended Rogers' victory party, admitted the race was, in fact, about that fabled dish best served cold.
"The Second Amendment is the best litmus test of what a true conservative is," Harris said. "If you won't stand up and support the Second Amendment, then you're really not a constitutional conservative on other issues. We use that as our litmus gauge for people, and what became abundantly clear was that many in the Republican Party that were incumbents have used or taken advantage of Second Amendment interests.
"Debra herself told me that gun owners don't have any choice but to support a Republican," Harris continued. "Well, what she missed was that that might be true, but we don't have to support a specific Republican. And that's why, early on in [the latest legislative session], the decision was made that we're going to focus on Debra Maggart's race. And that's exactly what the NRA did as well," adding that Maggart's defeat was "specifically intended to be an example" of what happens when Republicans cross the gun lobby.
But in her brief acceptance speech, Rogers made no mention of the NRA money or the Second Amendment issues that helped fuel her campaign. (Nor did she mention how, despite raising just $18,000 of non-NRA money, she could afford the massive, ride-pimped, Straight Talk Express-sized campaign bus parked outside the community center.) Instead, she joined her family in prayer, thanked her supporters and handed the mic back to Hartline, who was eager to accept.
"Courtney Rogers doesn't think she knows everything," Hartline said. "And I can tell you that because every time we've asked her to do something, she's asked, 'Why? Explain it to me.' And she's gone about the business of doing it and doing it incredibly well. You have a lot to be proud of, District 45."
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