By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Filled with big money punches and verbal attacks, the primary for the 6th District congressional seat is looking more like a female boxing match: Black vs. Zelenik, the rematch.
Two years ago former state Sen. Diane Black defeated Lou Ann Zelenik by fewer than 400 votes in a GOP primary that pitted Black’s mainstream Republican credentials against Zelenik’s tea party fervor. Black went on to win the seat east of Nashville, helping tip the Tennessee congressional delegation to 7-2 in favor of the GOP.
Now the two Republicans face off again Thursday in a contentious race that’s heated up within the last month.
The latest Federal Election Commission records show Black raised about $1.6 million and has roughly $360,000 on hand, where Zelenik has raised about $320,000, with close to $120,000 in ready to spend cash.
But at least two political action committees have surfaced recently and are generating thousands of dollars to take out negative ads against Black. Last week, Zelenik received endorsements from three state Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny.
Zelenik campaign chairman Jay Heine said he understands Black has a hefty war chest, but he said Zelenik isn’t intimidated, and he doesn’t expect voters to be either.
“We’re not intimidated by the money because we have grassroots support,” Heine said. “I think the people of Tennessee are going to stand up … and won’t sellout their vote for the big money.”
Black’s camp has heavily criticized the recent PAC support and the person behind them. Andrew Miller Jr. told The Associated Press last week that he’s the sole contributor of more than $180,000 to Citizens 4 Ethics in Government. He later told USA Today that he has put around $80,000 into the Congressional Elections PAC.
Miller is a health care investor and earlier this year was finance chairman for Zelenik’s campaign. Miller and Zelenik also worked together on Tennessee Freedom Coalition, a group that identifies working against Islamic radicalization at the top of its mission statement.
“These super PACs are a little bit scary because you can have one person who’s very wealthy, doesn’t live in the district, doesn’t have anything to do with what’s happening in the district, put (up) a large amount of money … to defeat me,” Black said.
Only one other congressional incumbent in Tennessee faces a seriously competitive primary. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is battling Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp in the 3rd District in southeast Tennessee. Republican Reps. Phil Roe and Marsha Blackburn and Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper have no primary opposition. Reps. Jimmy Duncan, Scott DesJarlais and Stephen Fincher and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen have far outpaced their primary challengers in fundraising and organization.
The Zelenik campaign, as well as some Republican leaders, have vigorously attacked Black’s voting record in Congress, saying she’s not conservative enough because she voted several times to fund President Barack Obama’s new health care program.
But Black is quick to fire back that she voted “on 26 different occasions to defund” the program and “voted twice to totally repeal it.”
She further cites legislation she passed that repealed a portion of the program and is expected to save $13 billion.
“Now truly, if I were for Obamacare, I don’t think that all those things would have happened,” said Black, who is considered a rising star by party leaders in Washington.
She has been endorsed by U.S. Reps. Allen West and Michele Bachmann, who has called Black a “wonderful tea party representative” and lauded her record on trying to repeal Obama’s health care program. She also was endorsed by National Right to Life and Tennessee Right to Life, whose president Brian Harris called her the “only 100 percent pro-life candidate in this race.”
While serving in the Tennessee General Assembly, Black sponsored legislation placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014 that could allow the state to impose stricter limits on abortions. She has also worked to defund Planned Parenthood because the women’s health organization performs abortions.
“I am a conservative, and I’m a strong conservative,” Black said.
Zelenik also considers herself a staunch conservative and has strongly opposed construction of the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, saying in 2010 that it posed a threat to the state’s moral and political foundation.
The battle between Zelenik and Black has at times seemed personal. The company owned by Black’s husband sued Zelenik for defamation over a campaign ad that implied its $1 million in state contracts were received as a result of Black’s legislative power. Zelenik won dismissal of the claim earlier this year and the company that produced the ads settled out of court.
When redistricting removed Zelenik from Black’s district, she rented a home in the freshman incumbent’s district to mount her campaign.
Heine said he senses a knock out in the race is possible.
“We feel very confident about how this election is going to go,” he said. “We think that the best poll out there is going to happen on election night.”
The stakes are high with the winner likely to be headed to Congress in January. There will be no Democrat on the ballot in November and novice candidate Scott Beasley is running as an independent.