Tennessee's 3rd District election splits Republicans

Tennessee's 3rd District election splits Republicans

June 6th, 2012 by Chris Carroll in News

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

POLL: Who do you now support for Tennessee's 3rd district?

Tennessee's most powerful Republicans appear divided on U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are headlining at separate fundraising events this month for Fleischmann, making the congressman the definite 3rd Congressional District leader in high-profile endorsements thus far.

But Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker remain publicly ambivalent to Fleischmann's re-election despite the first-term congressman's struggle to emerge as the obvious front-runner in a contested Republican primary.

Fleischmann's biggest GOP threats, Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp, have ties to Corker and Haslam, and neither the governor nor Tennessee's junior senator seems willing to rock the boat.

In April, Corker would not say whether Fleischmann is the best choice of the three.

"I'm basically not involved in the 3rd District race right now and haven't been," he said.

In a written statement Tuesday, Todd Womack, the senator's chief of staff, declined to answer whether Corker would formally endorse Fleischmann, instead saying Corker "has shown support for Congressman Fleischmann by hosting events for him."

During a Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board meeting on Monday, Haslam said he has worked with Fleischmann on "several things" since both men took office, but said "probably not" when asked if he would endorse the congressman or anyone else in the race.

Fleischmann appears to be held in higher regard in national Republican circles.

Along with Alexander and Frist, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have raised money or otherwise supported Fleischmann. Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign was managed by Chip Saltsman, Fleischmann's chief of staff and political aide-de-camp.

Fleischmann also has collected several endorsements from national conservative organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Citzens United Political Victory Fund and the National Right to Life Committee, a pro-life group.

"Obviously these individuals and groups approve of Chuck's conservative voting record," Fleischmann campaign spokesman Jordan Powell said. "Any other help they'd like to provide is up to them and we'll certainly see what comes next."

Several of Haslam's family members have contributed re-election money to Fleischmann, but the governor said he's known Mayfield "forever." The dairy executive's products are sold at Haslam's family-owned chain of Pilot Flying J truck stops.

Haslam had less to say about Wamp, whose father, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, ran against him in a tense 2010 Republican primary for governor.

"In general in Republican primaries I think it's better quite frankly to not be involved," Haslam said.

But the governor endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney before Tennessee's presidential GOP primary, and he's also campaigned for several incumbents facing contested primaries, including State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland.

"Those are folks we work with every day," Haslam said of the legislators. "And Romney was the right person to be the presidential nominee. Congressional races -- it's not something I've decided to get involved in."

Corker is friendly with Mayfield, and the Chattanooga mayor served four years in Congress with the elder Wamp.

For their part, Mayfield and Weston Wamp haven't touted any big-name endorsements yet.

"Endorsements are traditionally the fodder for incumbents like the one we have now," the younger Wamp said. "It's one Washington insider endorsing another Washington insider. We don't want endorsements from Washington."

A spokesman for Mayfield could not be reached Tuesday.

Ron Bhalla is the other Republican challenging Fleischmann, and Democrats Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are fighting for the other side's nomination. Independent Matthew Deniston also is in the race.

Primaries are Aug. 2.

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