Can a center-right 27-year-old beat a Tennessee incumbent?

Jessica Taylor

VONORE, Tenn. — Weston Wamp doesn’t sound or look like your typical GOP primary challenger, nor is he running your typical campaign.

The 27-year-old son of the district’s former congressman is trying for a second time to unseat Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.). But he’s not running to his right, as many Tea Party hopefuls have tried across the country.

Instead, Wamp is running as the centrist candidate. Most state observers still think Fleischmann has the edge, but it’s closer than many thought it would be in the deep red Volunteer State ahead of their Aug. 7 bitter primary battle. 

The Son Also Rises

When he ran two years ago, Wamp, the son of former Rep. Zach Wamp (R), was derided as trying to ride his father’s coattails to Congress. He placed third in the four-way contest, behind local dairy magnate Scottie Mayfield.

Wamp has matured since then. He’s married, and his first child is on the way. His wife, Shelby, is a familiar presence on the trail and in his TV ads. 

They’ve been traveling the sprawling district, which reaches from the Kentucky line to the Georgia/Alabama border, in their campaign RV adorned with their picture and even embroidered campaign pillows inside, courtesy of his mother. 

As Wamp waltzes out of a local political meeting in rural Vonore in jeans, cowboy boots and a crisp plaid button-up, Wamp is clutching Fleischmann’s latest mail piece slamming him. It features a manipulated picture of him holding a lighter to a U.S. passport, saying “Weston Wamp’s Amnesty is an Attack on U.S. Citizenship.”

The claim stems from their last debate, which left Fleischmann supporters cringing after a match-up one Tennessee GOP strategist compared to the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

The younger, more telegenic Wamp appeared comfortable and friendly, while the 51-year-old Fleischmann was visibly angry and flustered at times.

“They did not come out of that winning,” said the strategist, “and you elevated Weston to the point of being a major contender.”

Preaching his message of bipartisanship, Wamp argued in the debate that, “where we don’t agree is that Democrats don’t have cooties, and you can’t talk to them and there can’t be civil discourse.” 

“They got a lot worse than that, Weston,” Fleischmann quipped back. 

Many thought Fleischmann shouldn’t have even engaged that showdown. Some think he did it to collect sound bites to appeal to his own conservative base on immigration.

He’s zeroed in on Wamp’s statement that, “We need to find a pathway for them [illegal immigrants] to be legal.”

However, as Wamp and local media have noted, that clipped quote was only part of what Wamp said: “There are a lot of people who are illegally working. We need to find a pathway for them to be legal, but not citizens, but pay taxes. But unfortunately, Congress does nothing.”

Wamp says he stands by the full quote, arguing it’s Fleischmann’s position that’s incredulous, and there’s no way 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally could be deported.

“He’s an incumbent member of Congress, and he sort of reduces me to sound bites to say I’m for amnesty,” Wamp says.

Instead, he says he wants a “creative solution forward” and is open to letting some stay in the country. He draws the line at citizenship.

Wamp says he’s an “independent-minded conservative,” and that, if elected, he’d get more results than Fleischmann. He’s stumping for Democratic voters, who can cross over in the state’s open primary.

The challenger argues Fleischmann plays it safe and his support is soft. The incumbent only took 30 percent in an 11-way primary in 2010 to succeed Zach Wamp, and last year netted just 39 percent in the four-way race.  

Even though Fleischmann has heavily outraised his challenger, some are beginning to worry a last-minute super-PAC funded by one of Wamp’s business partners will even the score.

Wamp has netted a few noteworthy endorsements and checks, too. Retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) gave him $2,000 and praised him as “the next generation of leadership,” while decrying Fleischmann’s attacks. 

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a once and possibly future presidential contender, also endorsed Wamp last week.

One of the most surprising checks came from National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.), whose leadership PAC cut a $2,000 check for Wamp in June. The NRSC has worked to defend several incumbents from their own primary challengers.

Fleischmann dismisses the donations as gestures by friends of Wamp’s father, who has taken a keen interest in helping his son get elected.

“His dad has called in every favor they can think of,” said one Tennessee Republican.

When Wamp was supposed to speak to a local Pachyderm Club last month, his father showed up instead.

Workhorse vs. Show horse?

Fleischmann is facing several challenges as an incumbent. His schedule is often hampered by votes, forcing him to rush back to his district to campaign. On weekends, he shuttles between events.

On Saturday, he stopped by an ice cream social in Kingston hosted by Scottie Mayfield. Once his rival, the two have now become friends, and Mayfield, the face of the state’s popular dairy brand, is now Fleischmann’s honorary co-campaign chairman.

Mayfield, sporting a bow tie, is the star of Fleischmann’s latest ad, which details another skirmish early in the campaign.

When Wamp heard the former challenger was about to endorse the incumbent this March, he stopped by Mayfield’s home on a Saturday morning to try to stop it. Later, he texted Mayfield he had secretly recorded the conversation on his iPhone.

“While I was at home playing with my grandson, Weston Wamp showed up at my doorstep, uninvited, to argue politics and secretly recorded our conversation,” Mayfield says in the ad. “Now, he’s asking for your trust to represent us in Washington? Those aren’t East Tennessee values.”

Fleischmann comes across a guy who genuinely loves his job but admits he might not be the flashiest on the campaign trail.

“I’m a can-do conservative, and I just love the job, and I think I’m going to get re-elected.”

As he mingles around talking to people who have come in and out of the pavilion slurping ice cream floats, he looks a bit out of place. 

Most people at the social are wearing shorts and T-shirts on a hot summer day; Fleischman is wearing crisp pants and a blazer, adorned with his member pin.

The incumbent can rattle off the local projects he’s helped with and the importance of his seat on the Appropriations Committee to his district. He expects to eventually be chairman of the Energy subcommittee, which could be a boon for federal funds for his district.

“I wear frayed khaki pants,” Fleischmann told The Hill.  “I’ve never been a show horse or particularly charismatic. I’m just the guy who gets up and works hard every day.”

Fleischmann has gone negative in the race’s waning days, with several ads attacking Wamp. State GOP observers said they had to be a sign of concern from his campaign.

“I don’t view our approach as negative. I view our approach that when you have a candidate in a Republican primary make statements that would make his position to the left of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama on immigration ... we need to bring that out to the people,” Fleischmann said.

Another Tennessee operative framed the campaign as a way to show voters the real difference between talk and action. 

“He’s good at creating buzz, I don’t know that he’s good at creating votes,” said the Republican.