Scottie Mayfield celebrated U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's voting record Monday, downplaying a shared political philosophy between himself and the man he wants to beat.
"I haven't studied his votes enough to tell you that I would vote significantly different," Mayfield told the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club. "He has voted conservative, and I praise him for that."
Along with Chattanooga businessmen Ron Bhalla and Weston Wamp, Mayfield is challenging Fleischmann in the GOP primary in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District. The election is Aug. 2.
A Fleischmann aide who filmed Mayfield's Pachyderm speech quickly responded.
"It speaks a lot to Chuck's leadership that Scottie chose to use Chuck's voting record in his stump speech," campaign spokesman Jordan Powell said.
Scheduled weeks in advance, Mayfield's appearance found the Athens, Tenn., dairy executive battling perceptions that he refuses to debate, lacks legislative goals and agrees with Fleischmann on every critical matter facing Congress -- ideas he never refuted during 25 minutes of remarks.
Mayfield said he isn't sure what Fleischmann has done "as far as stimulating things." He said his 40-year dairy career gave him the expertise needed to create jobs and boost small business.
As evidence, he drew from personal experience and said the number of federal and state agencies that regulate Mayfield Dairy Farms "is well into the double digits." Later he said the federal tax code has "3.8 billion words in it" and needs to be "flatter, fairer, simpler and lower" without offering specifics.
Clenching a microphone with both hands, Mayfield read from a prepared script and received no applause until he finished speaking. The event attracted some Bhalla and Wamp supporters, along with a swath of Fleischmann donors.
Several said Mayfield failed to explain why he was the only Republican candidate to decline invitations to two debates, including a May 21 forum sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV Channel 3.
During the speech, Mayfield said intraparty debates encourage "beating each other up over the same issues that we generally agree with," citing the presidential primary process as an example.
"It doesn't do our party good," he said.
Ray Minner, an undecided Collegedale resident who attended the speech, didn't buy that.
"I was inclined to support Scottie," he said, "but if he refuses to debate, he'll forfeit my vote. I don't reward that strategy."
A video gaffe and an alleged crime have soured the last few weeks for the Mayfield campaign, so the Pachyderm speech gave the candidate a chance to shift the focus to policy.
Based on interviews with attendees, it's unclear whether that happened. Fresh in their minds was a YouTube clip showing him saying he must get elected to Congress before identifying his legislative goals. They also knew police charged Mayfield's 33-year-old son with vandalism under $500 after he confessed to slashing a Fleischmann aide's tire during a Mayfield campaign event.
"That sort of thing doesn't help" his campaign, said Ruth Ann Quiroga, a Chattanooga resident who attended the Pachyderm event. "But I'm impressed with Mayfield's business credentials. I thought it was a good speech."
While Mayfield is trying to change the narrative surrounding his campaign, aides to Fleischmann are pushing a message of stability and attempting to identify their boss as the purest Republican in the race.
Early Monday morning, the Fleischmann campaign announced an award the congressman won from the American Conservative Union, a political action committee in Washington. A campaign news release did not mention that dozens of other members of Congress received the same award, including the six other Republican representatives from Tennessee.
Aides said to expect future releases, explaining they won't pass up a chance to tout Fleischmann's voting record in Washington despite overall gridlock.