NRCC Embrace of Fincher Irks GOP Opponents

Posted December 11, 2009 at 6:56am

Ever since Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) announced his retirement, national Republicans have done everything they can to signal that little-known gospel singer Stephen Fincher is their preferred candidate to flip the seat in 2010. But a little more than one week after Tanner’s announcement, the GOP is far from clearing the field, and Fincher may face a resource-draining primary next year. Tanner’s announcement Dec. 1 that he will step down at the end of his 11th term has spurred more Republican interest in the western Tennessee swing district, which prior to becoming an open-seat race had drawn only Fincher and a trio of second-tier candidates. But the National Republican Congressional Committee’s decision to embrace Fincher is rubbing some local Republicans the wrong way, and the committee’s perceived role in trying to anoint the nominee could ignite a grass-roots fire among Tea Party activists who don’t take kindly to a directive from Washington, D.C.Among the Republicans now considering the contest are Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn Jr. Flinn, a doctor and Navy veteran who runs his own radiology practice in Memphis, has said he’s seriously considering challenging Fincher for the GOP nomination and “will be a part of a campaign to take back America and make sure our conservative values are no longer ignored, whether I do it as a candidate or in another role.—Flinn, who in addition to his medical practice owns several radio stations and a television station in the Memphis area, is viewed as someone who could amass the political and financial resources to compete in the primary. In 2002, he won the nomination for county mayor by beating the favored candidate of the local Republican establishment. But GOP insiders suggested Flinn’s Memphis base would be a disadvantage in the general election in the mostly rural 8th district, which spans more than 8,500 square miles across 19 counties. Memphis lies in the 9th district, which is represented by Rep. Steve Cohen (D).Besides Flinn, Army veteran and physician Ron Kirkland (R) said Thursday that he’s “99 percent— certain he will file to run against Fincher in the primary. “I’m trying to put the campaign together before I officially announce,— Kirkland said.Kirkland’s base is in Madison County and the city of Jackson, where he has practiced medicine for 25 years and is active in several medical and civic organizations. His family is known for starting a popular antique gun business in Tennessee. Kirkland said Thursday that he has the ability to at least partially self-fund, which would be key in a race against Fincher, who raised more than $300,000 in less than a month of campaigning in September.Fincher, who hails from Frog Jump, is not well-known in the state, but his early fundraising prowess earned him the support of key players on the state and national levels. And even though Tanner’s retirement moved the district much higher on GOP target lists, the support of the party establishment has only seemed to strengthen in the past week. On Thursday the NRCC announced that Fincher had been impressive enough with his early campaign efforts to be bumped up to the next rung of the committee’s recently retooled “Young Guns— campaign program. The program was created last cycle and ranks candidates on three tiers: “On the Radar,— “Contender— and “Young Guns.— No candidate has yet achieved the program’s highest ranking, and Fincher is one of only nine GOP recruits who have achieved Contender status.Fincher had one of the most robust fundraising quarters of any challenger candidate in the country, and his ability to rake in early dollars is a key reason party bosses aren’t dumping him for a better-known candidate now that Tanner is out of the race. “Almost all his money came from nontraditional sources,— a Tennessee GOP consultant said. “He raised $300,000 without tapping much of the traditional Tennessee Republican donor network at all.—That kind of fundraising impresses strategists in Washington and Tennessee. Adding more credibility to Fincher’s candidacy was his ability to attract a top-drawer money man — Jimmy Wallace, one of western Tennessee’s most important GOP fundraisers. Wallace’s support indicates that there’s a potential for Fincher to have another strong fundraising quarter.“John Tanner was a rock of the Democratic Party — he was one of those foundation stones,— the consultant said. “Very few people thought he was vulnerable until Stephen Fincher got into the race.—Still, the NRCC’s decision to stick behind Fincher is rubbing some Republicans the wrong way. Kirkland, for instance, would have preferred to see the national party sit back and let Republicans in the district sort things out.“I’ve tried the best I can to send them signals to stay on the sidelines … in the primary,— Kirkland said. “I think it’s inappropriate the NRCC would take a stand in the primary.—Network computer consultant Donn Janes, who filed for the race in August, called the move by the NRCC “disheartening— and said he disagrees with efforts by the party to paint Fincher as “the true conservative— in the race. Janes said he believes the Tea Party activists in the district will move toward his campaign once they learn more about the competition.Janes, who expects to report less than $20,000 raised by the end of the year, said that many of the donors in Fincher’s report are western Tennessee farmers “who have received millions in farm subsidies over the years. … It might be our tax dollars that are subsidizing [Fincher’s] campaign.—