Close combat: 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates spar in head-to-head debate (with video)

Close combat: 3rd Congressional District Republican candidates spar in head-to-head debate (with video)

July 3rd, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., right, speaks during the 3rd Congressional District Republican debate with Weston Wamp, center, in a one-on-one meeting inside the WTCI television studio Wednesday afternoon. The taped show was televised at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. The event was moderated by Dave Flessner, left, from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Both candidates agree: Wednesday's 3rd Congressional District Republican primary debate got straight to the core differences between two-term incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and challenger Weston Wamp.

Fleischmann is -- and will remain -- as far to the political right as possible, and Wamp says the days of die-hard partisanship are hurting the country and need to pass.

The two met Wednesday for a one-on-one debate sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WTCI-TV, Chattanooga's PBS station. The mood was decidedly tense, with Fleischmann at one point repeatedly yelling at Wamp to answer a question about speaking with Democrats in the district -- and Wamp rebuffing him to the sound of snickers from the challenger's side of the room.

"It's a little awkward, but I feel like I'm sitting across the table from an angry Republican congressman," Wamp said.

Primaries typically prompt candidates to prove their core party credentials. That's clearly Fleischmann's move.

"Before the debate I believed I was the most conservative candidate, and after the debate I was convinced," Fleischmann said.

Wamp says his opponent's play works on Capitol Hill, but the rest of the 3rd District is tired of rigid partisanship.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to debate the status quo on behalf of people who are frustrated," Wamp said.

Weston Wamp talks directly to U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., during a one-on-one debate Wednesday inside the WTCI television studio. The taped show was televised at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

In between debate questions, the opponents wasted no words driving those points home. Fleischmann attempted to paint Wamp as a Democratic sympathizer who would "kiss up" to President Barack Obama. And Wamp tagged Fleischmann as an out-of-touch Washington insider unable to step out of the party line and break gridlock.

The big question is: Which strategy will work in the 11-county district, which comprises Anderson, Bradley, Campbell, Hamilton, McMinn, Monroe, Morgan, Polk, Roane, Scott and Union counties.

If Wednesday's nearly 200-person audience was any indication, Fleischmann's supporters will be the old-guard Republican, 55-and-older crowd. Seats on Wamp's side of the room, however, were filled with a smattering of people ranging from late 20-somethings to retirees.

According to U.S. census records, the median age of district residents is 40, and the 25-to-54 age group is the largest voting bloc.

Of the 711,391 residents, more than 557,000 are of voting age, and 118,524 are 65 or older.

The candidates have very differing political philosophies -- and the discourse had a combative air -- but they were not too far apart on issues.

Both said they opposed raising the gasoline tax to fund highway infrastructure, as U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has suggested.

Both said the Common Core curriculum was an overreach by the federal government.

And both said the U.S. needs to secure its southern border before tackling immigration reform.

But there were a few close to home issues in which they did not see eye-to-eye.

Fleischmann was quick to laud his work on reforming the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which brought funding for the Chickamauga Lock repairs closer to the present.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., talks directly to challenger Weston Wamp during a one-on-one debate Wednesday inside the WTCI television studio. The taped show was televised at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

At the same time, he criticized Wamp's father, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, for funding previous projects at the lock through earmarks and creating what he called a "broken system."

"I inherited a broken system. ... The first thing I did [when first elected in 2010] was we put a moratorium on those terrible earmarks," Fleischmann said. "I presided over the vote that fixed the lock system, and that is proof that I'm doing the right thing."

But Wamp had a quick retort.

"The problem is, he didn't fix the lock," Wamp said.

Wamp criticized Fleischmann for not instead going along with a plan suggested by barge operators, which would increase the fees they pay to fix and maintain the lock.

"Absolutely, they want the tax increase," Wamp said. "That is what is so asinine about American politics."

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democratic candidate Mary Headrick in the November election.

Both Fleischmann and Wamp said they would meet Headrick in a similar debate in November.

Headrick did not immediately return a telephone call before press time Thursday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.