published Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Republicans dominate early voting in Tennessee's 3rd District


by Chris Carroll
Area residents casts their voting choices inside the former Shane's Rib Shack at Northgate Mall on the first day of early voting in Hamilton County.
Area residents casts their voting choices inside the former Shane's Rib Shack at Northgate Mall on the first day of early voting in Hamilton County.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
3rd Congressional District early voting turnout

County / Republicans / Democrats

Anderson / 4,371 / 1,904

Bradley / 1,795 / 221

Campbell / 1,572 / 904

Hamilton / 12,337 / 5,694

McMinn / 2,771 / 373

Monroe / 2,007 / 708

Morgan / 476 / 273

Polk / 698 / 756

Roane / 4,142 / 1,380

Scott / 649 / 178

Union / 728 / 198

Total / 31,546 / 12,589

Sources: Tennessee Department of State, Bradley County Election Commission, Campbell County Election Commission

Poll
Did you vote early?

Third Congressional District Republicans outvoted Democrats by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 during early voting, with an especially large GOP swath across Hamilton County and smaller-than-expected numbers emerging from candidate Scottie Mayfield's home of McMinn County.

Officials cautioned that geographical trends only tell part of the story, unequivocally warning that anomalies happen on Election Day. In 2010, for instance, Ooltewah resident and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann won the 3rd District GOP primary without winning Hamilton County.

But one expert said early voting totals can help answer a question relevant to this race: Which candidates have done the best job energizing supporters in their own hometowns?

"You can look at early voting as some indicator of how much enthusiasm there is for a particular candidate," said Josh Clinton, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who studies elections. "It's about how much firepower the candidate has from his base."

Overall, election officials said, 31,546 residents in the 3rd District voted Republican, and 12,589 picked up a Democratic ballot before early voting concluded Saturday.

Fleischmann is facing three challengers from within his own party, including Chattanooga resident Weston Wamp, the 25-year-old son of Fleischmann's immediate predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp. The Republican field also includes Mayfield, a dairy executive and Athens resident who would be the first non-Chattanooga resident to represent the 3rd District since the 19th century.

Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, the administrator of elections in Hamilton County, said the 3rd District race is "driving turnout" in early voting, which set records across Tennessee.

"I truly believe it's that congressional primary," she said.

That's why, election officials said, the low McMinn County turnout is particularly baffling.

Before this year, McMinn was part of Tennessee's 2nd Congressional District, which has experienced little to no political conflict in more than two decades -- Republican U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan has won since 1988, and before that, Duncan's father held the seat for 23 years.

Redistricting in January plunked McMinn within the 3rd District starting with this contentious election, but a popular, well-funded, hometown candidate -- Mayfield -- apparently wasn't enough to stimulate people from Athens, Englewood and Etowah during the two weeks of early voting. Only 2,771 Republicans voted early in McMinn, compared to 4,781 in 2010, records show.

"Because we had a local candidate, I thought we would turn out in bigger numbers," said Kris Williams, McMinn's administrator of elections. "I was expecting at least four or five thousand."

Early totals show a similar drop in turnout for another new 3rd District locale considered a Mayfield stronghold -- neighboring Monroe County.

"I've heard some comments about that, but I don't really have a feel for it," Mayfield said in an interview Monday. "I've had some people say they want to wait and vote the day of the election."

The district's most populated voting bloc went the other way. Out of 11 3rd District counties, only Hamilton reported a higher early voting turnout than the August 2010 election, which centered on a much busier ballot.

Officials said 12,337 Hamilton County Republicans cast ballots during early voting this year. That's 116 more than in 2010, a year in which Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen finished his final term and the elder Wamp vacated the 3rd District seat to run for governor, enabling dozens of gubernatorial and congressional hopefuls.

Hamilton County Democrats also picked up the pace from 2010, sending 5,694 early voters to the polls -- 2,000 more than two years ago.

Most other 3rd District counties decreased in overall turnout but remained fairly stable.

Mayfield said he feels "really good" about Hamilton County. And because Fleischmann won the crowded GOP primary by 2 percentage points in 2010, officials and experts said, it's difficult to determine anything conclusive until Election Day on Thursday.

"Who's to say when it comes to politics?" Mullis-Morgan said.

Republican Ron Bhalla; Democrats Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor; and independent Matthew Deniston also are vying for the 3rd District seat.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-757-6610.

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