published Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Funding gulf divides campaigns in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District


by Chris Carroll
Mary Headrick, from left, Chuck Fleischmann
Mary Headrick, from left, Chuck Fleischmann

IN COMING DAYS

A look at fundraising in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District, where Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart is challenging Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

It's a lopsided money race in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann holds an 8-to-1 fundraising lead over his Democratic challenger, Dr. Mary Headrick.

"Publish that number -- let Chuck Fleischmann put his guard down," Headrick said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Let him think I'm not going to do any TV ads or any big things. Let him relax and think he's got it won."

A conservative freshman congressman who fended off a popular dairy executive and a political scion in August's Republican primary, Fleischmann reported $106,075 in general election contributions through July 13. Very little of that has been spent.

Meanwhile, Headrick said she has about $13,000 in the bank with two months before the Nov. 6 election.

"That's 13 with three zeroes," said Headrick, an acute-care physician whose top campaign goal is ridding politics of money's influence. "Not four zeroes or five zeroes."

The political territory favors Republicans -- it touches 11 East Tennessee counties and includes Chattanooga and Oak Ridge. Democrats haven't won the 3rd District since 1992, and experts predict another easy GOP victory.

But Headrick is challenging the conventional wisdom, banking on a grass-roots strategy that leaves almost no room for the big bucks.

"Everyone says I can't win this on $100,000, but that's what I think it should cost," she said. "If it costs a lot more than that, it's prohibitive for everyday people who want to make a change."

With upcoming fundraisers aimed at teachers and union workers, Headrick hopes to become financially competitive. But the already substantial donation gulf could widen if Fleischmann's team approaches donors to his Republican primary opponents, Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp, who raised $1.4 million between them in a shared quest for Congress.

"We took a breather after the election, and the [Republican National Convention] kept us busy," Fleischmann campaign manager Tyler Threadgill said, "but we'll be ramping up soon."

Candidates cannot spend general election money during a primary campaign, but they can do the reverse -- another built-in Fleischmann advantage. Overall, the congressman raised $1.1 million to Headrick's $43,231 through mid-July, records show.

"We spent most of the million during the primary," Threadgill said, "but there's a little left."

Headrick won her contested Democratic primary in a 2-to-1 districtwide landslide, but never did any radio or television ads. Fleischmann spent hundreds of thousands in advertising in the run-up to the Aug. 2 primaries.

On Wednesday, Headrick vowed to "spend every last penny on advertising" this time around, adding that she'll "travel up and down I-75 plenty" to make up for Fleischmann's financial clout.

Threadgill was unmoved.

"We feel good about where we are," he said.

Army veteran Matthew Deniston is an independent candidate in the 3rd District race, but Federal Election Commission records show no evidence of any campaign contributions.

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