Picking the winners in the Third District debate

Here are some additional thoughts, beyond the Nooga.com story, on Saturday’s Tea Party debate among three of the GOP candidates running for the U.S. House 3rd District seat.

Who won the debate?

Like the last one, it was pretty much a draw between U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Weston Wamp. Each was able to articulate a rhetorical starting point and defend it, even if each was light on real substance. Ron Bhalla gets points for earnestness and civic responsibility, but struggles to broaden the scope of his narrative much beyond his idea to have every one of his constituents vote on every bill that comes before the House.

The most “TV friendly” exchange came after Wamp reminded the audience of Fleischmann’s seeming waffle on last year’s debt ceiling debate, and his private meeting with Speaker John Boehner followed by a public change of heart. “I’m sorry, Weston, I didn’t know you were in that room,” Fleischmann retorted, and then went on to describe the content of the meeting, including the fact that cigarettes were smoked (by Boehner, not by himself).

Wamp used that tidbit to levy the old “smoke-filled room” cliché later in the discussion, as he sought to portray Fleischmann as servile to the party establishment’s Washington-insider mechanisms.

A weaker attack came when Wamp used his submitted question to ask Fleischmann to confirm that he stood by sworn deposition in the Winslow v. Saltsman/Fleischmann lawsuit, namely, that he had not fully previewed all campaign ads in the 2010 cycle. Fleischmann essentially responded [paraphrased], “Of course I stand by sworn statements; that’s why they are made under oath. Moving on, then?”

The legal battle stemming from a bitter primary election two years ago makes a great workout gym for strengthening journalism skills, but Wamp risks throwing away valuable voter engagement if he pursues this line further. Reporters and politics junkies eat it up, but the average person “jes’ don’t care.”

Who won the poll?

A poll was handed out after the debate, and the slips of paper were collected along with donations to defray event expenses. Actual vote counts were not provided, but the Tea Party group published percentages on its Facebook page. These numbers demonstrate Wamp’s ability to draw a friendly crowd, at the very least:

  1. Weston Wamp: 57%
  2. Chuck Fleischmann: 26%
  3. Other / Undecided: 13%
  4. Ron Bhalla: 4%

Who asked the best question?

It wasn’t clear whether all of the questions were submitted by Tea Party members (except those submitted by candidates), or if the moderators brought some of their own, but Brian Joyce’s question to Wamp about why he criticized Fleischmann a month ago for not securing funding for the Chickamauga Dam lock infrastructure project, and then this past week criticized him for not holding the line tight enough on spending, was the best one.

Honorable mention goes to Gregg Juster for the question addressed to the milk jug.

Who will win the primary?

Congressional incumbents are very difficult to defeat. That said, perhaps the best chance one would have is during an incumbent’s freshman term, and in a party primary (unless the district is more evenly balanced).

It is no secret that many Republicans in Hamilton County were displeased with Fleischmann’s win over Robin Smith in 2010. What has never been clear, ever since Smith herself declined a rematch, is how many of the formerly disgruntled have patched things over and are willing to at least tepidly support Fleischmann.

Obviously Wamp has tapped into some new money as well as drawn a lot of his father’s friends to his side; but how much of that will translate to actual votes on primary day is not easy to predict. Turnout among Wamp’s younger admirers may be key here.

The Mayfield candidacy is the most interesting. He and his team seem to be betting on pure name recognition, although one suspects that broadcast advertising will show up at some point. You may be thinking that name recognition is a bad strategy for a primary, when only activists show up, and you’d be mostly right.

What you may not have considered is a quiet insurgency among said activists to support Mayfield as the anti-incumbent who has life experience (Wamp’s deficit), even if he’s light on policy specifics. There’s no evidence that such a thing exists; but it could really change the game.

How this vote will split, and who will benefit from that, is not something that can be determined with much certainty right now. Even Bhalla’s weaker effort gets to be a factor with this many variables in play.

Expect another update around the time early voting begins, unless something major happens before then.

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