Citing "fantastic support" the night he won Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District Republican primary in August 2010, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann couldn't have known he'd be locking horns with the son of his immediate predecessor and the fourth-generation face of Mayfield Dairy Farms two years later.
But that's what Fleischmann is doing in the days before the toughest part of his re-election battle: Thursday's GOP primary in an 11-county district that has swung Republican since that predecessor — former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp — won his first of eight elections in 1994.
With three Republicans, two Democrats, one independent and more than $1.1 million directed toward his defeat, Fleischmann hasn't enjoyed the typical breezy education a freshman House member might expect.
In late September, less than 10 months after Fleischmann took office, 25-year-old Weston Wamp announced he would take on the man who replaced his father. Four months later, when the Legislature redrew the district to include McMinn County, Athens resident Scottie Mayfield made waves when he jumped in the race.
"As far as an incumbent having competition, I'm not that surprised," Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Marty Von Schaaf said. "But there were some surprises as to who got in. It's been an interesting race, to say the least."
For a while, the Republican trio ran mostly positive, personality-based campaigns, with Fleischmann touting his work ethic, Mayfield his business experience and Wamp his youth. All three appealed to the past.
Wamp began sending mailers that included glossy photographs of his father and read: "If you liked Zach Wamp, you'll love Weston Wamp." Mayfield invoked President Ronald Reagan in a television ad, and Fleischmann highlighted his family.
A fourth Republican in the race, Chattanooga businessman Ron Bhalla, said he would use congressional computer systems to email legislation to constituents, tally the "yeas" and "nays" and vote accordingly.
But the tone changed when the foursome realized they differed little on issues -- they're all interested in cutting spending, aiding industry and promoting social conservatism. As they sought to differentiate themselves, negative attacks began hitting 3rd District mailboxes, televisions and computer screens.
Wamp was first, accusing Fleischmann of "playing the blame game" against President Barack Obama and showing inflexibility by nearly always voting with Republican leadership.
Mayfield's spokesman promised the campaign wouldn't "go negative in any way."
For nearly five months, the dairy executive's social media feeds were reliably upbeat, sticking to conservative boilerplate and photos from the campaign trail.
But last week, Mayfield's messaging machine became an anti-Fleischmann portal, with a new attack ad and 10 consecutive tweets accusing the congressman of "making stuff up" and "attempting to hide the truth," among other charges.
At least one observer sees Mayfield's turnabout as a gamble he must take.
"Negative works," said Robin Smith, who finished second to Fleischmann in 2010 and is monitoring this year's contest. "The purpose of a negative ad, whether it's true or not, is to drive up the negatives of the target. The recent shift tells me it's a two-man race between Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Fleischmann."
Mayfield had his own negatives to overcome, via his own family. In a late April campaign stop at the Roane County Courthouse, his 33-year-old son, Michael Mayfield, slashed the tire of a Fleischmann staff member. The younger Mayfield soon confessed, police charged him with vandalism under $500 and the story went national.
"It's slash-and-burn politics in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District," a Huffington Post story said. "Well, minus the 'burn' part (so far)."
Not long afterward, the tough headlines hit Fleischmann when depositions emerged that gave the appearance he didn't control his first campaign. The depositions were part of a defamation lawsuit filed by a former aide to Smith, and the congressman testified he never saw some of his own ads before they aired.
In a separate deposition, Fleischmann's top adviser, Chip Saltsman, said he approved a Fleischmann ad that included a "created" computer image featuring Tennessee's state seal superimposed over a nongovernment document.
Noting in court filings that "2012 is an election year," Fleischmann's attorney attempted to keep the depositions sealed from the public. A judge denied that request.
Mayfield and Wamp quickly seized on the revelations, criticizing Fleischmann in the media and claiming the congressman operates campaigns "so false and negative it got him sued," as Mayfield strategist Tommy Hopper put it on Friday.
Fleischmann has called the lawsuit "frivolous."
Last week, a South Carolina-based group launched a television ad that says Mayfield is "good at ice cream, not so good on the issues." Mayfield's campaign said the Fleischmann team coordinated the $165,000 ad campaign, which would be a federal violation.
Fleischmann's advisers have denied coordination despite a prior professional link between Saltsman and the ad's Alexandria, Va.-based producer.
In lieu of ideological differences, much of the conflict among the candidates came from their funding sources. Wamp has criticized Fleischmann for quickly joining "the status quo" in the Congress his father left after 16 years.
Fleischmann has received $435,850 from political action committees representing a broad swath of conservative and corporate interests. That's 37 percent of his total contributions, and more than half the $794,651 Fleischmann has spent thus far to win a second term.
By comparison, Mayfield and Wamp have reported a combined $14,000 in PAC money. The rest of their respective war chests came from individual donors or, in Mayfield's case, his own wallet.
Two years ago Fleisch-mann gave more than $600,000 of his own money to win the 3rd District. This time, Mayfield donated $150,000 of a fortune of $3 million to $12 million, records show. Fleischmann hasn't self-financed to this point, but that could change even days before the election, his advisers said.
Bill Taylor, a Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, holds a model 1911 .45-caliber handgun on Saturday at Shooter's Depot on Shallowford Rd. in Chattanooga. The candidate hosted a "Candidate Shootout Challenge," inviting people to out-shoot him for a $25 entry fee.Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.
Meanwhile, the Democrats in the race are dealing with fractions of the cash the GOP runners have to spend.
The race is between Chattanooga health care consultant Bill Taylor and Maynardville, Tenn., physician Mary Headrick. The candidates barely have advertised and have spent about $75,000 between them.
Taylor has portrayed himself as a moderate Southern Democrat -- friendly to those who appreciate "guns and God" -- while Headrick has tilted to the left, advocating a single-payer health system and pushing Occupy Wall Street's goal to eliminate corporate money in politics.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said their health care backgrounds prove both candidates are "far more qualified" than Fleischmann, Mayfield and Wamp.
"We're very proud of both of them, and we feel they stand head and shoulders above the Republicans," Smith said.
Headrick and Taylor have said they support the key parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. All four 3rd District Republicans wish to repeal what they call "Obamacare."
Most political experts describe the 3rd Congressional District as a "safe" place for Republican office-seekers, and several said that will come to fruition when the dust settles after Election Day on Nov. 6.
"The Republican primary is where the action is," Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer recently said.
Matthew Deniston is the independent in the race. He won't be on this election's ballot but will run against the Republican and Democratic nominees in November.