NASHVILLE — After three tough GOP primary battles over six years, 2016 may prove to be "sweet '16" for 3rd District U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann.
State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, made it official last week, telling the Times Free Press in an interview he won't challenge Fleischmann in the August GOP primary.
"I sure hadn't announced anything, so that's a pretty good indicator," said Watson, who earlier this year weighed a potential challenge. "I really enjoy doing what I'm doing right now."
His post as vice chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee and chairman of the panel's budget subcommittee "allows me to be a real participant in the process and, I think, make a significant difference in what we're doing in Tennessee," Watson said.
In an earlier interview, Fleischmann said he had not yet heard from the state lawmaker on his intentions.
"We have always been good friends," said Fleischmann. He added that if a challenge does come, his campaign is "much better prepared than we have been in the past" with a "fiscally sound" war chest of some $900,000.
"We've continued to do the thing we have been doing, not just on legislation but on constituent service," he said.
Fleischmann, an attorney from Ooltewah, first ran for Congress in 2010 in a multicandidate GOP slugfest to succeed long-time incumbent Zach Wamp of Chattanooga. He scraped through in a bitter battle with former Tennessee Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith, winning 30 percent of the vote to Smith's 28 and handily taking the general election.
Two Republicans stepped up in the 2012 GOP primary — Weston Wamp, son of the former congressman, and Athens businessman Scottie Mayfield. That, too, was a bitter fight and Fleischmann won with a plurality of 39 percent.
The younger Wamp tried again in 2014 but Fleischmann eked out a primary win by a slim 51-49 percent.
Wamp said afterward he wouldn't challenge Fleischmann in 2016.
But those kinds of narrow victories get ambitious pols thinking and last spring Watson confirmed he was giving thought to a challenge. Fleischmann has often lost Hamilton County, where he and Watson — as well as Wamp and Smith — live.
In an interview early this year, Watson said a challenge would depend on factors including his senior position in Nashville, whether he could bring anything new to the congressional job, people's feelings about Fleischmann and the tough job of taking on an incumbent congressman.
He said while he and Fleischmann may have stylistic differences, their votes would largely be the same.
If he ran, he said, "It would be because I truly believe I could be effective, No. 1, and because I could make a significant difference beyond what Chuck has been able to do," Watson added.
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