The GOP primary race for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District may come down to how much political pull the milkman has -- or which candidate puts the most sweat into the district's rural counties.
Weston Wamp is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann a second time in the Aug. 7 state primary.
This time, with a head-to-head race against the second-term Ooltewah Republican and having lost every outlying county in 2012, Wamp is spending three days a week on the road, wrapping his message to rural voters in faith and the flag, and doubling down on good-old-fashioned campaigning.
Fleischmann is relying on another tried-and-true political strategy -- garnering support from former opponents along with a host of other big party names.
But political minds say both candidates might be missing the mark if they aren't organizing to get people to the polls.
"The big question here is turnout, which is what I would be focusing on this time around," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a public policy and education professor at Vanderbilt University. "The lower turnout is, the more important turnout is. That's where I think the name of the game is this time."
In 2012, there were more candidates for the 3rd District spot, and there was a presidential primary at stake. Both of those factors drove turnout, he said.
This time, district-wide, there are fewer "up-ballot" races to pique voter interest, Oppenheimer said. So turnout might not touch the 76,000 who cast ballots in 2012.
The 27-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp took only one county in 2012 -- Hamilton -- but he still garnered 28 percent of the vote. With the largest voter bloc, Hamilton County is the prize of the district.
But Fleischmann won five counties in 2012, and took 39 percent of the vote -- more than 10 percentage points over Wamp. And he has gained the support of McMinn County dairy executive Scottie Mayfield -- his greatest foe from the four-man campaign two years ago.
Mayfield took five counties in the bulk of the sprawling district's rural areas and garnered 31 percent of the vote.
That endorsement could be a big shot in the arm for Fleischmann's re-election. But Wamp's campaign is betting that much of Mayfield's support last time reflected anti-incumbent sentiment.
Candidate Ron Bhalla took 1 percent of the vote in that race.
But Oppenheimer says there's no one trick that works for the whole district.
"You have sort of three different bases, Chattanooga, Oak Ridge and the rural areas," he said.
Wamp's answer to that is to go to all of them and meet as many people as possible.
In Chattanooga on Monday, Wamp spoke to the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club. At that meeting, his message was clear: The federal government is too big, too inefficient and it needs to work more like small business.
But that's not the same message Wamp carries to the rural areas.
Drive around in Scott County -- or even north Hamilton County -- and you'll see a simple Wamp campaign sign.
"Pray for our country."
Wamp said Monday he's just trying to connect with people at a basic level.
"In our other counties, people don't care about the politics. They care about whether they've got someone in their corner," Wamp said. "That sign is a sign that gets to one of the core precepts our country was founded on. That's that we all need to pray for our country and work together."
The other driving conversations he has out in the district are about unemployment and methamphetamine, Wamp said.
Jordan Powell, a spokesman for Fleischmann's campaign, said the congressman is also campaigning in every district.
"There's really no secret sauce to this at all. It's all going back to Chuck's hard work," Powell said. "Chuck has always focused on all 11 counties."
From north to south, jobs and economic development are at the forefront, Powell said.
Aside from Mayfield, Fleischmann has gained support from state-level representatives from all 11 counties and established GOP groups such as the National Right to Life and Gun Owners of America.
Oppenheimer said endorsements can help, but they don't always carry a lot of weight with voters. And in a two-man race -- with low expected turnout -- securing the most heavily populated counties might be better than chasing rural votes.
"The heart of the district is built around Chattanooga, so Hamilton County is the biggest hunk of stuff. You can make that appeal to rural voters," Oppenheimer said. "But I don't know if endorsements of other primary losers makes much difference."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...