Watson won't say no to Fleischmann challenge

Watson won't say no to Fleischmann challenge

March 30th, 2015 by Andy Sher in Politics National
 

NASHVILLE -- After a raucous 2010 political GOP primary and hard-fought contests in 2012 and 2014, will 2016 be the year that U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann finally gets an easy ride in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District's Republican primary?

At first blush, it might seem so: Weston Wamp, who last year barely lost his second GOP primary challenge to the congressman, said in an interview last week that he doesn't plan to run again next year.

But the coast may not be entirely clear for Fleischmann, a 52-year-old attorney from Ooltewah.

According to several Chattanooga-based Republicans, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, is seriously weighing a GOP primary challenge to Fleischmann.

And Watson, 54, isn't denying it.

"I have people encourage me all the time," Watson told the Times Free Press last week when asked if he is running. "I don't rule that out. ... I think every election cycle you look at what opportunities might come up.""

Watson noted "we're still in session here" in the Tennessee General Assembly. "And this is what my responsibility is and so that's what I'm focused on."

The legislative session is expected to adjourn toward the end of April.

One helpful thing for Watson: He can run without having to give up his state Senate seat. He was elected to a third four-year term last year and won't face re-election until 2018.

Chuck Fleischmann and Bo Watson are pictured in this composite photo.

Chuck Fleischmann and Bo Watson are pictured in...

No easy path

Should Watson run, Fleischmann would be facing his fourth seriously contested primary in the 11-county district, which stretches from Chattanooga up north through Oak Ridge.

In an emailed statement Friday, Fleischmann spokesman Tyler Threadgill said the congressman is paying attention to constituents' interests in the U.S. House. Last week, he said, the House "passed the first real entitlement reform in decades and a taxpayer friendly budget."

"The Congressman is going to keep doing the job he was elected to do," Threadgill said. "I'll let others play in the political rumor mill."

Fleischmann has never had an easy race in the district. As a political newcomer in 2010, he narrowly a bitterly fought, six-person contest with Robin Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, as his main rival.

Fleischmann, whose campaign consultant was Chip Saltsman, another former state party chairman, pumped a half million dollars of his own money into the race. He won with 30 percent of the vote. Smith, a staunch conservative, got 28 percent.

Once in Congress and installing Saltsman as his chief of staff, Fleischmann moved hard to the right. Two years later, he faced two more moderate primary challengers in yet another bitter, hard-fought contest. One was Weston Wamp, then 25, whose father, Zach Wamp, held the seat before Fleischmann.

The other was businessman Scottie Mayfield of Athens, Tenn. Fleischmann took 39 percent of the primary vote versus 31 percent for Mayfield and 29 percent for Wamp.

Last year, Fleischmann and Weston Wamp faced off again. Wamp positioned himself as an independently conservative and youthful voice not interested in partisan warfare. Fleischmann won by 1,474 votes out of 91,638 ballots cast.

Friends in D.C.

Fleischmann, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, is said by other Tennessee delegation members and staffers to get along with the House leadership, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who follows state politics, said that back home, "Fleischmann's not demonstrated he's got control of the district yet."

"Until he does," Oppenheimer continued, "he looks like the weakest wildebeest in the herd" among Tennessee's nine-member House delegation. That leads to one or more "crocodiles" waiting for every GOP primary, he said.

Bruce Oppenheimer

Bruce Oppenheimer

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

But, Oppenheimer noted, incumbents tend to be better known and generally find it easier to raise money. Watson will have to be able to raise funds to tell voters outside Hamilton County who he is.

"The other fact is that Fleischmann, with another two years in the House, is a bigger, stronger wildebeest," he added.

Weston Wamp, 27, told the Times Free Press that "I certainly wouldn't describe myself as having much interest" in a 2016 challenge, but, with a passion for public service, "I certainly see myself running for Congress at some point in life again. I think I care too much."

Wamp has other duties now, as well. He and his wife, Shelby, have a 6-week-old son.

"I've got not only a son, who I totally adore ... but a combination of new responsibilities at [work] that I really enjoy," Wamp said. "That's not that I think Congressman Fleischmann should ever be comfortable. I don't think he's done a good enough job."

Watson is the Senate's speaker pro tempore, an appointment made by powerful Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, a closeWatson friend.

First elected to the House in 2004, Watson ran for the Senate in 2006 with no Republican primary opponent and easily defeated Democrat Jim Hall in the general election. He had no primary opposition in 2010 or 2014 either. Over the past decade, he's earned a reputation as highly focused and organized.

In recent years, most of Tennessee's state senators have done fairly well running for Congress. Just ask Republican U.S. Reps. Diane Black in the 6th Congressional District and Marsha Blackburn in the 7th, or Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in the 9th District.

Last year, state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, came within a cat's whisker -- 38 votes -- of unseating Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of South Pittsburg in the 4th District primary.

State Senate Republicans tend to back their own with contributions and other help, especially those from counties within congressional districts.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.


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