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Tennessee: US House Races Taking Shape

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

December 12, 2011

Republicans gained two congressional seats in the Volunteer State in 2010. Democrats are poised to make a major effort to try to retake one of them, and maybe both. In addition, intra-party primaries are developing in two districts, one a solid Republican district, the other solidly Democratic. Because redistricting will not be completed until January, the contests are still in a degree of flux. Nevertheless, some candidates have announced and there is considerable speculation about others.


The hottest November race is likely to be in the 4th District (Columbia, etc.) where freshman Scott DesJarlais (R) is facing a challenge from state Sen. Eric Stewart (D). DesJarlais won by 57 percent to 39 percent against 4-term incumbent Lincoln Davis (D) in 2010, so while the climate next year may not be as unfriendly to Democrats as it was then, Stewart will still have his work cut out for him.  Stewart, 39, a small businessman (insurance), is “a solid guy,” says a long-time observer of Tennessee politics, but is only a freshman state senator who would otherwise face a hard reelection battle to the upper legislative chamber. Moreover, as a lame-duck legislator, he could have a tough time raising the money needed in this 24-county, 4-media market district. In addition, redistricting could make the 4th somewhat more Republican. Nevertheless, Democrats are high on his prospects. “We’re all really happy” about Stewart’s candidacy, says a party insider. “He’s plain-spoken, a salt of the earth kind of guy, very genuine… he fits the district.” He adds that Stewart “wants to do the hard work that it takes to win a race like this.” His campaign experience includes a contested race for county commission as well as the state Senate. In his announcement, Stewart cited his record favoring budget cuts and tax relief for senior citizens. DesJarlais, a physician, reported $318,000 on hand as of September 30. He could face primary opposition from state Sen. Bill Ketron (R) if redistricting adds Murfreesboro to the district. While DesJarlais is an early favorite for renomination and reelection, “this has always been a swing district,” notes the observer. For now, Likely Republican.


The other potentially competitive race could take place in the 8th District (Jackson, etc.), where state Sen. Roy Herron (D) is mulling a rematch against freshman Stephen Fincher (R). Democrats believe the 8th District could end up looking better on paper than the 4th, but are still looking for a strong candidate. Although Herron lost by 39 percent to 59 percent in 2010, since then he’s been working the district and keeping contact with supporters. Insiders are speculating that he will make up his mind finally after new district lines are announced. But as of now, Herron, whose senate term is up in 2012, has not gotten in the race. In any case, “Fincher will be tough to beat,” says a journalist. “He got hammered last time, but people just didn’t believe” the negative attacks on him. He adds, “The party (R) views him as an up-and-coming star.” As of September 30, Fincher had an impressive $765,000 on hand.


The most rough-and-tumble primary – “a fun one,” says a source – is likely to occur in the 3rd District (Chattanooga, etc.), where Weston Wamp (R), the 24-year old son of former Congressman Zach Wamp (R), is running against freshman GOPer Chuck Fleischmann. The senior Wamp left Congress last year to make an unsuccessful run for governor. Fleischmann won the nomination in a bitter GOP primary in 2010 with former state GOP chair Robin Smith, who has said she will remain neutral in the 2012 primary. Wamp raised significant money ($250,000) in early December at a fundraiser hosted by local business folks. Fleischmann “has been working pretty hard,” says along-time observer of Tennessee politics. On the money front, Fleischmann had $352,000 on hand as of September 30; since then, he had House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in for a fundraiser. “If Wamp were 34 instead of 24,” says the observer, “he might make a race of it.” Fleischmann is the early favorite in the primary. In the General Election, the district is probably a safe bet for the Republicans, barring too much vitriol in the primary.


Less exciting, and not a big surprise, is the black-vs-white primary developing once again in the 9th District (Memphis, etc.). Three-term Steve Cohen (D) has one opponent already, Tomeka Hart, president of the Memphis Urban League and a school board member. Her first campaign events haven’t been successful, with less than a dozen folks at her headquarters opening and again at a fundraiser, which brought in less than $1,000 (Cohen has a whopping $923,000 on hand). Another potential foe for Cohen is City Court Clark Thomas Long. Cohen, though white and Jewish, has long been a player in this African-American dominated district and has a strong base here. For starters, the Congressional Black Caucus “is comfortable with him,” says a Democratic insider. “I think Cohen is going to win it four to one,” says a journalist. Safe Cohen; safe Democratic.


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