Tennessee Primaries: Not So Rocky Incumbents

by Jessica Taylor August 2, 2012 · 11:11 PM EDT

It wasn’t rocky in Rocky Top for incumbents on Thursday evening, as three members easily brushed aside challenges in Tennessee’s primaries.

Freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R), who won an open seat primary in 2010 by just 1,415 votes, had seen his grasp on his Chattanooga-based 3rd District put in danger thanks to his narrow win last cycle, coupled with over a quarter of new territory. Plus, he faced two impressive challengers that started off with more name ID than he had -- well-known dairy magnate Scottie Mayfield and 25 year-old Weston Wamp, the son of former Rep. Zach Wamp, who Fleischmann succeeded.

Mayfield, whose ice cream and yellow milk jugs are a staple in East Tennessee, was initially seen as a prominent threat to Fleischmann, but his inability to articulate issue positions and his refusal to participate in debates hobbled his campaign, along with other missteps. Wamp may have had a famous last name, but Fleischmann criticized him as a “showhorse” and argued he was too much of a political neophyte, and several local observers said Wamp’s case wasn’t helped by his strange political ads that tried to be inspiring but lacked policy policy specifics.

As many Volunteer State operatives expected in the race’s waning days, Fleischmann pulled out the plurality he needed to secure a second term, getting 39 percent to Mayfield’s 32 percent and Wamp’s 28 percent.

In Middle Tennessee, freshman Rep. Diane Black(R) again faced former Rutherford County GOP Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik in the 6th District but their rematch wasn’t even close, with Black winning 69 percent to Zelenik’s 31 percent.

Although their bitter three-way race in 2010 was decided by just 283 votes and saw lawsuits over their TV ads after the contest, Zelenik’s base of Rutherford County was removed during redistricting, making her task even more uphill.

This was seemingly personal for Zelenik, and she chose to challenge Black again, even though she wasn’t in the district any longer. Black took the primary seriously, having a heavy TV and radio presence. But Zelenik and her allies ended up nearly matching her at the end, aided by a super PAC funded by her former finance chairman that continued to hammer Black on what was seemingly Zelenik’s only major issue -- the growing threat of Islamic extremism, especially in the wake of a controversial mosque built in Murfreesboro she vociferously opposed.

In the Memphis-based 9th District, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) easily disposed of his usual primary challenge from an African-American challenger, as the Jewish three-term congressman took 90 percent in the state’s only majority-minority district against Memphis school board member Tomeka Hart, though she hadn’t stressed race in the campaign like his previous primary opponents.

While the Volunteer State saw three turnovers to the GOP in 2010, no general election races in the state this year are expected to be competitive, and Republicans will likely maintain their 7-2 advantage.