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A Congressman, a former Congressman’s 25-year-old son and dairy magnate jump into a Congressional race in Tennessee.
It’s a serious contest and the punch line could very well be freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann losing his seat.
The Republican lawmaker still has the edge two months before the Aug. 2 primary. But against two very credible challengers with bases of regional support in a district that contains a lot of new territory, Fleischmann’s re-election is no sure thing.
He faces public relations executive Weston Wamp, the son of former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), and Scottie Mayfield, the former CEO and spokesman for Mayfield Dairy, a popular milk and ice cream brand in Tennessee and the southeast. The elder Wamp represented the 3rd district for eight terms but didn’t run for re-election in 2010, deciding instead for a gubernatorial bid, which he lost.
Wamp and Mayfield begin with a huge swath of voters in the district who are familiar with their last names. But Fleischmann said he’s running on his record.
“There are two people in this race with famous names: Wamp and Mayfield. That’s great,” Fleischmann said with a hint of sarcasm. “I’m the guy who goes out there every day and gets the job done. I’m not a fancy guy. I’m not a flashy guy. I just go out and get the job done every day.”
His campaign’s message: Fleischmann is a “proven conservative.”
In fact, in a six-minute interview, he repeated that phrase a handful of times. And on Monday, Fleischmann launched a website: aprovenconservative.com.
But the crux of Fleischmann’s weakness is not his messaging or his personality or voting record, which fits the district well: It’s the fact that he’s not very well-known in his newly configured district that includes five new counties and a lot of new voters.
In the 2010 primary, Fleischmann won an 11-way contest with just less than
30 percent of the ballots cast — only 26,869 votes. In that election, there were a number of local contests that helped boost turnout. With fewer races on the ballot this year, a low-turnout affair could give a boost to challenger candidates.
Fleischmann and Wamp are both from Chattanooga and could split that base of support. Mayfield is from McMinn County and is well-known in the northern parts of the district.
“Anything could happen when you’ve won an election with a low volume of votes the first time,” said one unaffiliated GOP consultant familiar with Tennessee.
“It’s new territory, and he hasn’t [been in office] for a long time. He didn’t run for anything before that. He had to build his base as he went last time; he came out of nowhere. He had to start from scratch.”
Four unaligned GOP consultants with knowledge of the race uniformly saw the incumbent with the edge and Mayfield as more likely to knock Fleischmann off than Wamp.
But Mayfield’s campaign has had a number of major stumbles since he announced at the beginning of the year. In late April, Mayfield’s son was charged with and admitted to slashing the tire of a Fleischmann aide. In a YouTube moment, Mayfield appeared at a loss for words trying to answer what he wanted to accomplish if he got to Washington, D.C. And he refused to participate in a debate with Wamp and Fleischmann.
“I’ve just been pretty stunned at the stumbling out of the gate,” said another unaffiliated GOP consultant. “Scottie has a lot of catchup to do, and I’m not sure if he has time to do it.”
Tommy Hopper, Mayfield’s consultant, brushed off the criticism.
“We really haven’t spent much of our money yet, and campaigns are determined by the messaging in the last four weeks or so,” he said. “We think the fact that Scottie Mayfield has spent the last 40 years of his life creating jobs ... gives him the kind of experience he needs to go up and change Washington.”
None of the candidates have placed ads on television yet, but the dynamic of the campaign is expected to change when they do.
Fleischmann had a significant edge in money at the end of the first quarter, so he should be able to message aggressively. It’s unclear who might go negative, but in an interview, Wamp fired a shot across Fleischmann’s bow.
“I think there’s a lot of people who are attracted to my campaign because they think Chuck is bought and paid for by party leadership in Washington, by special interests,” said Wamp, who turned 25 in March. “They know that I’m going to go there and challenge the status quo and not just do whatever Speaker [John] Boehner or Leader [Eric] Cantor tell me to do. And that’s exactly what Chuck has done.”
In 2011 votes, where a majority of Republicans voted against a majority of Democrats, Fleischmann voted with his party 97 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly’s vote study.
“I get up every day, I work hard, but I work primarily and exclusively for the people of Tennessee,” Fleischmann said. “If leadership likes that, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s great, too.”
The district is heavily Republican, so the winner of the primary is almost certain to win in November.