Tennessee Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischmann knows a thing or two — or three — about tough primaries; and he's stockpiling money for a fourth.
Fleischmann's primaries have never really been about ideology. His district went for Mitt Romney by 28 points in 2012, and he's dished out plenty of red meat rhetoric to them. Earlier this month at a GOP gathering in Chattanooga, he said of his guest, conservative South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, "Whether you are Hillary Clinton or any other lefty out there, you better beware because Trey Gowdy is out there and he is going to get you."
But Fleischmann's string of close calls in primaries begs the question why a three-term congressman in a solidly red district who has voted with his party 97 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch , consistently faces competitive primaries.
Republicans in the state, including Fleischmann, told CQ Roll Call that state Sen. Bo Watson, who's openly considering a bid, could be a serious challenger. And because he wouldn't have to give up his seat to run — Watson would still be speaker pro tempore in the Senate if he lost — lobbyists would have incentive to throw money at his campaign.
Fleischmann is determined to get ahead of that. This year, he's more personally involved in fundraising. It was his idea to invite House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to a Chattanooga fundraiser last month that Fleischmann said raised more than $400,000 — far more in one day than the $138,000 his campaign raised during the first quarter. And for the first time, he said, his campaign will be organized on the ground in every county in the district.
Fleischmann chalks up his first primary in 2010 to the mess of an 11-person open field. He won in an upset over former state Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith with less than 30 percent of the vote. And that's where some of the intraparty chafing began.
"He was not the party's chosen one," a long-time Tennessee GOP consultant said. And that, along with the nearly $700,000 of his own money that he spent, left a sour taste in some Republicans' mouths.
In 2012, when redistricting threw in some new constituents, Fleischmann beat dairy magnate Scottie Mayfield by a more comfortable 8-point margin. "After that," the GOP consultant said, "People expected that he would be okay."
But he wasn't. After finishing third in the 2012 primary, Weston Wamp, son of former Rep. Zach Wamp, came within fewer than 2 points of Fleischmann in 2014.
"He raised a tremendous amount of money early, and we did not," Fleischmann said. "We’ve cured that this time. I will make sure we raise money early, middle and late."
Fleischmann told CQ Roll Call his challenges haven't been about his voting record. "It was usually about someone wanting to be in Congress, rather than my having done something to alienate my base," he added.
Vanderbilt Professor Bruce Oppenheimer said to some extent that's the reality of Tennessee politics. With few statewide elected offices, anyone with higher political ambitions has to run for Congress. And because it's such a red state, the only place to play is a GOP primary.
But multiple Republican sources in the state said the willingness for Republicans to take on Fleischmann says something about the congressman's inability to connect — a deficiency fundraising may not be able to overcome.
"It takes time for 700,000 people to get to know their congressman," Fleischmann said when asked why he's always faced stiff competition.
Watson did not return CQ Roll Call's requests for comment, but when the Chattanooga Times Free Press asked for his thoughts about the congressman's leadership earlier this month, he said, "People have different styles of leadership. I think Chuck has done a good job at associating himself with leadership. Now, how that equates out is one's opinion."
One GOP consultant, who still thinks Fleischmann will prevail in a primary, recalled seeing Bob Corker, Tennessee's junior senator, and Fleischmann, who are about the same height, standing side-by-side. "When I looked at Corker standing next to Fleischmann, that guy has stature — you can sense it. Chuck Fleischmann just doesn't."
"His total lack of ego is impressive," the consultant added, "but at same time, he doesn’t carry himself with a congressional aura about him."
The Wamp family has capitalized on that perception to criticize the congressman throughout the district, with Weston Wamp now a Tennessee talk show host. His father said his dislike of Fleischmann started when Flesichmann tried to "cast himself in contrast to my record," and is more substantive than just having watched him beat his son twice.
“Some people will think I’m a disgruntled father," Wamp said. "No, I’m a disgruntled constituent.”
The GOP consultant said Fleischmann's problem in primaries is self-perpetuating.
"Fleischmann hasn’t pulled away yet — that’s why he keeps getting challengers," the GOP consultant said. "If he could get above 60 percent, he wouldn’t have challengers."
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