By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Freshman U.S. Reps. Diane Black and Chuck Fleischmann both boast of strong conservative records in Congress. That hasn’t stopped either from facing bruising primary challenges to their bids to return to Congress next year.
Voters go to the polls Thursday to decide whether to stick with the GOP incumbents in those races, or make a fresh start with their rivals.
Fleischmann’s challengers in the 3rd District include Scottie Mayfield, an executive with the dairy company that bears his family name, and Weston Wamp, the son of a former congressman.
In the 6th District, Black faces a rematch against Lou Ann Zelenik, whom she narrowly defeated for the nomination to the open House seat in 2010. Zelenik moved from Rutherford County to Wilson County make another run after the district’s boundaries were redrawn earlier this year.
The last incumbent Tennessee congressman to be defeated in a primary was former U.S. Rep. David Davis, who lost to fellow Republican Phil Roe in 2008. The last time it happened before that was in 1966.
Outside groups have been pouring money into both races seeking to influence the outcomes.
Super political action committees funded and controlled by Zelenik’s former chief fundraiser, Andrew Miller, have spent nearly $233,000 to oppose Black. That’s about $55,000 more than Zelenik has raised from outside sources for her own campaign, though she also has contributed $215,000 of her own money to the bid.
Miller is chairman and CEO of Tennessee Freedom Coalition, which has among its primary goals stopping the growth of “radical Islam” and spreading news about what it calls the “realities of Sharia.”
Meanwhile, a group called Citizens For a Working America has spent $165,000 on television ads opposing Mayfield, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission.
The Mayfield campaign alleges that Fleischmann aides have had a role in directing that independent expenditure.
“Why would an out-of-state PAC that has no ties to Tennessee only get involved in one congressional race in the entire country,” said Tommy Hopper, a top Mayfield strategist.
Fleischmann, at a campaign event at a retirement home outside Chattanooga earlier this week, denied any involvement in controlling the outside expenditure.
“We didn’t know that any third party was getting involved in the race, and we don’t control those things,” he said. “Our ads have a good strong, positive message and we’re just focusing on the issues.”
A media consultant for the PAC referred questions to a spokesman for the group. The spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Voters on Thursday will also decide the nominees for the state’s U.S. Senate contest. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, has a huge fundraising and name recognition advantage over a handful of GOP opponents as he seeks a second six-year term.
Meanwhile, seven Democrats are vying for their party’s nod, though none has raised significant amount of campaign cash.
Actress Park Overall said the Democratic nomination campaign has been an eye-opening experience for a political neophyte.
“Why everyone is so careful with what they say is annoying. I don’t know if you can tell the truth anymore,” said Overall, who starred in the popular television series “Empty Nest” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I don’t know who you’re supposed to be in bed with financially,” she said. “I don’t get it.”