The next test of President Donald Trump’s endorsement power will come in Tennessee, where a little-known freshman — one of two Jewish Republicans in the House — is being outspent more than 2-to-1 ahead of Thursday’s primary.
Rep. David Kustoff earned the president’s backing in a tweet Friday — less than a week before the 8th District primary against perennial GOP candidate George Flinn, a radiologist and radio station owner who’s almost entirely self-funding his campaign. (A third candidate dropped out and endorsed Flinn, but her name will still appear on the primary ballot.)
Most Tennessee political operatives think Kustoff will survive Thursday. But they acknowledge that 2018 is an unpredictable year. A loss would make Kustoff the fourth House incumbent and the third Republican to fall in a primary this year.
While Kustoff may be the incumbent, he doesn’t have the kind of deep roots in the district that a longtime congressman would bring to a primary. He won a 13-way GOP contest to succeed retiring Rep. Stephen Fincher in 2016 with just 27 percent of the vote. Flinn came in right behind him with 23 percent.
And since Flinn has run for office before, he’s a known commodity to many in the Western Tennessee district. The former Shelby County commissioner also ran for the 8th District in 2010, finishing third in the primary behind Fincher. Two years later, he ran against Democrat Steve Cohen in the Memphis-based 9th District, losing badly. And in 2014, he challenged Sen. Lamar Alexander, who easily defeated him in the primary.
Loaning his campaign more than $3.1 million, Flinn has had plenty of resources to hammer Kustoff on the airwaves since the end of May. He’s going after him from the right, mostly parsing the congressman’s vote for the omnibus spending bill to poke holes in his conservative credentials.
One recent attack ad tries to tie Kustoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, specifically accusing him of voting “to fund Planned Parenthood.” Another ad features pregnant women saying that “there’s no way” Kustoff is a “true conservative.”
Kustoff hit back with an ad accusing Flinn’s businesses of “profiting off Planned Parenthood.” In March, he explained his support for the omnibus spending bill by calling it a “pro-life bill” that maintained prohibitions against taxpayer dollars going to abortion providers. “Not one dime is earmarked to Planned Parenthood,” he said in a statement at the time.
Trump’s endorsement took the same tack.
“Congressman David Kustoff has been a champion for the Trump Agenda — I greatly appreciate his support,” he tweeted Friday. “David is strong on crime and borders, loves our Military, Vets and Second Amendment.”
Kustoff followed up the same day with an ad touting the Trump endorsement and the backing of the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life.
Flinn had spent $2.7 million by the close of the pre-primary reporting period, which ended July 13, compared to $1.1 million for Kustoff. Flinn’s Federal Election Commision report doesn’t break down his disbursements. His pre-primary report, for example, only lists one $1 million payment to Caissa Public Strategies on July 3 for “campaign management.”
Despite being outspent, Kustoff has raised much more than Flinn. None of the $1.5 million he brought in came from personal money, whereas Flinn only raised a little more than $2,000 from outside sources.
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