Chattanooga attorney Chuck Fleischmann defeated rival Robin Smith, a Hixson health care consultant and former Republican state chairwoman, in a bitterly contested GOP primary election in East Tennessee's open 3rd Congressional District.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Fleischmann led Smith by 1,409 votes, according to the Associated Press. He won 30 percent of Thursday's vote to her 28 percent, the AP reported.
Watching returns with jubilant supporters at his Market Street headquarters, Fleischmann, 47, who spent more than $700,000 of his own money on the race, said he attributes his victory to his status as a political outsider.
"We basically came to the election as a political newcomer," the Ooltewah resident said. "The people of the Third District wanted some fresh ideas."
He rejected criticism from opponents that he bought the election in the 11-county district that includes Chattanooga, Cleveland and Oak Ridge.
"We have gotten fantastic support from the people of the district," he said.
Smith, 47, who was gathered with supporters at The Sports Barn downtown, was unavailable for comment Thursday night.
Fleischmann faces Democrat John Wolfe, a 56-year-old Chattanooga attorney, in the Nov. 2 general election, with the ultimate winner taking office in January. Congress members receive $174,000 annually.
Wolfe, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, outpaced three Democratic opponents with 39 percent of the vote after 99 percent of the precincts had reported, according to The New York Times.
Wolfe, who won the Democratic nomination in 2002 and 2004, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press recently he is in favor of abortion rights and governmental earmarks, as long as they are used responsibly.
Twenty-one candidates entered the race to replace U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., in the district, but much of the attention went to Fleischmann and Smith, who leveled accusations at each other over the airwaves and in mailers. Wamp has held the seat since 1995 but ran for governor.
On July 12, a poll in the 3rd District by the conservative Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee that endorsed Smith, showed her with a 22-point lead over Fleischmann.
Four days later, on the first day of early voting, Fleischmann began airing television ads criticizing Smith, a former state GOP chairwoman, for leaving the party with a financial shortfall when she handed over the reins in 2009. Within weeks, a Fleischmann poll showed the race in a dead heat.
Smith's television advertising touted her fiscal conservatism, but she also aired radio ads calling Fleischmann a "slip-and-fall" attorney who has gotten rich by suing a local rifle club, Walmart and church.
Fleischmann, who was endorsed by Fox News weekend host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, put $100,000 of his own money in the race in the last week, according to the Federal Election Commission website.
The 11-county 3rd Congressional District, which represents about 650,000 East Tennesseans, stretches from the Georgia to Kentucky borders and includes Chattanooga, Cleveland and Oak Ridge.
Smith's campaign had only $147,176 to spend at the end of the June 30 reporting period, but she benefited from independent-expenditure television advertising aired by the anti-tax Club for Growth. The PAC spend $79,000 on TV ads questioning Fleischmann's commitment to ending federal
earmark spending. In addition, the group's supporters have contributed more than $107,000 to Smith's campaign, according to the FEC site.
The Fleischmann campaign criticized a mailer sent this week from the Club for Growth asking recipients to call him if they want "an aggressive earmarker" in Congress at a toll-free number, 800-Get-Some-Pork, that connects to a sex hotline.
Richard Wilson, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science professor, has said that while the district is conservative, a Democrat has an outside chance, with the Republican being tarnished from a divisive primary campaign.
The only Democrats who had raised the $5,000 required to file an FEC report were Community Bridgebuilders board member Brenda Freeman Short, 64, who pulled in $11,324, and 40-year-old physician Brent Staton, who raised $20,372, including $3,222 of his own money.
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