Rep. Chuck Fleischmann didn't hesitate Thursday night to call his triumph in the Republican primary "a great victory." His political embellishment aside, it was anything but that. And it certainly was no mandate to continue the dismal performance and the stale political positions he displayed over the past 20 months of his first term.
Fleischmann virtually foundered Thursday in his home county — the 3rd Congressional District's most populous county, and the source of 48 percent of the total primary vote in the 3rd District. Though he lives in Ooltewah, he couldn't win a majority of the vote here. His 14,208 votes — a number surpassed by Weston Wamp — constituted just 38.84 percent of the 36,573 votes tallied in this county's GOP primary.
The roughly 30,000 votes that gave Fleischmann his victory in the broader multicounty region of the 3rd Congressional district, moreover, similarly accounted for just 39 percent of the approximately 75,500 votes cast in what was mainly a three-candidate contest. Even as a sitting congressman, Fleischmann couldn't scrape together a simple majority in his own party's primary.
Fleischmann also had to suffer the embarrassment of seeing Wamp, an inexperienced neophyte candidate who has just turned 25, actually win the local plurality margin with 14,305 votes. Fleischmann's willingness to enter debates in this election cycle — he refused to participate in public debates two years ago — at least helped him defeat his other main opponent, Scottie Mayfield. That's partly because the Athens, Tenn., dairyman, who had no political experience, also arrogantly declined to engage in debates in his own political debut — and as a result won just 7,435 votes in Hamilton County.
Fleischmann's weak showing in Hamilton County and across the rest of the 3rd District hinges partly on his tea party-style intransigence, which has resulted in his inability to bring home the federal appropriations that Hamilton County desperately needs. Chief among these, for example, is his failure to procure incremental funding to finish the new lock at Chickamauga Dam, a $683 million multiyear project stalled since 2010 by the budget battles in Washington. $507 million is still needed to finish the project, and failure to secure that funding and interim maintenance costs could, by 2015, result in closing commercial barge traffic on 318 miles of river upstream from the dam.
Fleischmann's rigid right-wing rejection of infrastructure investments and budget compromises are not likely to win him any give on Hamilton County's needs. Until he acknowledges that deficit reduction requires bipartisanship and revenue increases as well as cuts in spending, he isn't likely to be a constructive, productive congressman.
Fleischmann's vainglorious praise of his narrow escape from the Mayfield-Wamp threat can't obscure the utter political folly of Mayfield's self-defeating political strategy. He simply shot himself in the foot by refusing to engage in public debates with his opponents here in District 3's largest county, by failing to articulate a cogent political agenda, and by running away from the news media, which rightly sought to report his views and comments.
The irony of Mayfield's embarrassment is that his veteran political manager raised substantial campaign funding here for Mayfield, but he couldn't begin to turn the candidate's public disengagement to his favor. If Mayfield had done his homework on campaign stumping, he probably would have sliced deeply into the support given both Fleischmann and Wamp.
Fleischmann's minority vote demonstrated the undercurrent of disappointment with him across the GOP base. And the shift to support Wamp here further proved that premise. Mayfield lost the primary by 7,000 votes. Had he taken just a quarter of the support (3,500 votes) given here to each Wamp and Fleischmann, Mayfield would have easily won the party's nomination. That he failed to win owes to his own miscalculation, and further undermines Fleischmann's claim of a great victory. These are lessons for both of them in the wake of Thursday's balloting.