WASHINGTON — Just when freshman House Republicans have finally learned their way to the Cannon Caucus Room, how to vote on a motion to proceed, and which commissary serves the best tuna sandwiches, someone back home — worse, someone from their own party — wants to take it all away.
“I am taking a serious look,” said Weston Wamp, 24, who is pondering a primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, in his first term from Tennessee.
Wamp said he is inspired by his father, Zach, who served in the House for 16 years.
“My experience through my dad was seeing the very best of what public service can mean,” said the younger Wamp, who last year started a public relations and social media consulting firm, Wamp Strategy, in Chattanooga.
It is miles to go before the 2012 congressional races begin in earnest, but already some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans win back the House last year are bracing for a challenge from within. At least half a dozen potential primary challengers to freshmen are mulling a run, and there is heated chatter about more.
Members of Congress must be at least 25 years old to serve. Weston Wamp reaches that threshold in March — less than five months before August’s GOP primaries.
Robin Smith, a Hixson health care consultant and former head of the state Republican Party, was Fleischmann’s most formidable opponent out of 21 candidates who entered the race to replace Zach Wamp, who unsuccessfully ran for governor the same year.
Smith finished 1,490 votes behind Fleischmann in the Republican primary, following an adversarial campaign. Asked last week if she’d try again, Smith offered an answer not dissimilar from Weston Wamp’s.
“I’m not going to rule it out,” she said. “If the voters are dissatisfied with their current representation and I think I could lead in a more pronounced and qualified way, I’ll make that decision.”
In some ways, the freshmen are responsible for their own dilemma. Many won their seats after successfully challenging establishment Republicans in primaries, proving that a combination of gumption and the right political climate can overcome the advantages of incumbency.
Now, to some of the impatient and ideological voters who sent them to Washington to change things, the new Republicans may be seen as the establishment, and they face the disconcerting prospect of immediately defending themselves in the political marketplace.
The 2012 primary “started the day I took office,” said U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of South Texas, who won last year in a heavily Democratic district but is now likely to face a Republican primary challenger. “There is this constant pressure for fundraising. I mean you’re always worried about who is going to run against you, but I am willing to stand up for what I believe and on my record.”
RAMIFICATIONS OF REDISTRICTING
In many states Republicans control the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts, and they are maneuvering to beef up marginal districts to make them more Republican-friendly. That is meant to shore up incumbents, but it can also make a district more attractive to Republican newcomers.
“We just had a great Republican year,” said Kurt Luidhardt, a political consultant in Indiana who worked for several newcomers in 2010. “So a lot of Republican candidates now want to get in there and run. I would imagine redistricting will inspire a whole host of interesting primary challenges on both sides of the aisle.”
On the flip side, groups aligned with the tea party movement, which helped push many new-to-politics candidates into House seats, are disenchanted with some of their new hires, and are pondering whether they can raise the money — and the firepower — to find someone to take them on.
“I do think it is going to be more competitive,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. “With the freshmen who claim to be Tea Party or claim to support the ideas of the tea party movement but haven’t kept their promise, I think it will be tough for them.”
Among the potentially vulnerable members of the Class of 2010 is Farenthold, whose win in his South Texas district was so unexpected that the national party more or less ignored him during the campaign. His race also was so close — he won by 799 votes — that it was called just before the new Congress convened in January. He was thus rewarded with the last office available, the palatial space once enjoyed by the senior Democrat he ousted, U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, who had held the seat for nearly 30 years.
Other potential challengers insist it is nothing personal.
Running for Congress “is something I have always wanted to do,” said Bill Ketron, a Tennessee state senator who said he may challenge U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a freshman Republican from Tennessee’s 4th District, which cuts a swath from the Alabama line to the Kentucky line and covers part of 24 counties, including Marion, Sequatchie and Bledsoe.
“I feel like I made a difference as a county commissioner, I think I’m making a difference in the state Senate and it would be the same idea with Congress. It’s got nothing to do with Scott DesJarlais,” Ketron said.
Luidhardt, the consultant, sees an upside to the challengers. “Without a primary challenger, a candidate can get a little lethargic,” he said. “I personally think hiring a manager, getting the grass roots out, getting yourself in the district, those things are good. I welcome primaries.”
But for now, most candidates are not feeling the hot breath of potential rivals on their necks.
“Right now we’re worried about the deficit, cutting spending and getting our financial house in order,” said Chip Saltsman, the chief of staff for Fleischmann, the Tennessee Republican freshman. “We’re not thinking about politics.”
Chattanooga Times Free Press staff writer Chris Carroll contributed to this report.
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