My, how time flies. Two years ago this month, a new blog was added to Chattarati.com called, simply enough, the “TN03 Election Blog.” Its solitary purpose: to track the candidates and issues in the election of a new U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s Third District, which former Congressman Zach Wamp resigned in order to run for governor.
But really, not that much time has passed. Only one year ago this month, on August 5th, the corner of 7th and Market Streets in Chattanooga exploded with celebration as Chuck Fleischmann squeaked past a double handful of other Republican candidates to win the primary, while just down the street at the Sports Barn, hope turned to anxiety to stinging dejection as the Robin Smith campaign team watched the returns come in.
Make no mistake: that night, revenge was sworn. Specifics were likely not determined, nor even a general plan per se; but the seed was planted. Smith had given the local party twenty years of sweat equity, and, it would seem, some felt that this congressional seat was to have been her dividend.
The Third District comprises eleven counties in whole or in part, but somewhere around half its voters reside in Hamilton County. Even though Wamp’s predecessor was a Democrat, the district is, and has become increasingly so, very Republican.
Therefore the Hamilton County Republican Party plays a major role in selecting this district’s member of Congress. However, winning the county is not a guarantee for a win overall, as Fleischmann proved by taking Anderson County, which is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, another important district anchor. (Hello, Cleveland! We’re not forgetting you.)
And don’t forget redistricting, either. While details are still being worked on, a possible scenario would concentrate even more power into this county’s hands. Whatever the case, it’s worth understanding the Hamilton County GOP’s internal dynamics. The party leadership changed hands earlier this year amid a somewhat contentious process. There are several factions, and they don’t necessarily align with the typical “establishment/country club versus grassroots right-wing populist” divisions, although these cliques certainly exist.
A “unity breakfast” held shortly after last year’s primary election was a decent attempt to portray a sense of solidarity, but it also rang a little hollow due to the absence of a major figure in the prior rift, i.e. Smith herself. (In her defense, she was helping her daughter move in order to begin college. But perceptions are pesky that way.)
Though official announcements have yet to be made, it is clear that Fleischmann is drawing two potential challengers from within his own party just months after being sworn in. These two have ample name recognition to at least modestly call into question the usual safety enjoyed by incumbents. One is, of course, Robin Smith; and the other is Weston Wamp, the 25-year-old son of the erstwhile congressman.
As pointed out in this article by Andy Sher and Dave Flessner, many of those who decry federal spending are simultaneously looking to their congressional representatives to “bring home the bacon.” As Tennessee in general, and Oak Ridge in particular, face the possibility of cuts, there is arguably room for some backlash against a legislator who voted to take those things away, even if all he was doing was dutifully carrying out what his constituents said they wanted.
The next two months or so will creep by relatively slowly as we wait for field positions to be taken. But once “Smith and Weston” take aim at this seat, the hours will fly by, and we won’t be able to catch our breath until next August. And we also know that Chip Saltsman, former campaign consultant and now chief of staff to Fleischmann, will use every weapon in his formidable arsenal to make sure his boss keeps the job.
Count on county party politics to help set the locations of cheers and tears this time next year.