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Tennessee Primary Action Largely on the GOP Side

Tennessee voters are headed to the polls today after an especially active primary season for Congressional races in the Volunteer State.

Of the five districts to keep a close eye on tonight, only two are expected to be competitive come November, and both are Democratic districts that Republicans have hopes of picking up during a GOP-friendly cycle. The winners of the other three primaries should cruise to victory in the general election.

3rd district Republican primary

This is a Republican stronghold that came open this cycle when eight-term Rep. Zach Wamp (R) decided to run for governor. Eleven Republicans are vying for the nomination, but the contest has come down to a two-way race between former state GOP Chairwoman Robin Smith and attorney Chuck Fleischmann. There’s no love lost between Smith and Fleischmann, and the contest hasn’t lacked for negative attacks. The race has also seen big-name Republicans lend their endorsements. Several GOP Congressional leaders, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), are backing Smith. This week, she also earned the backing of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Fleischmann’s biggest endorsement came from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who also appeared in a commercial for his campaign.

Fleischmann’s deep pockets have given him the financial edge in the contest. As of mid-June, he had outspent Smith with the help of about $600,000 from his own pocket. But the support that Smith has received from the anti-tax Club for Growth has likely made up the spending gap.

The group, which endorsed Smith in February, dropped a substantial television buy in the district last week supporting Smith and hitting Fleischmann.

The winner of the primary is all but certain to replace Wamp in a district that voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 25 points in the 2008 presidential race.

4th district Republican primary

Five Republicans are vying for the opportunity to take on Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) in a contest that national GOP officials hope will become one of the late-breaking races this cycle. Of the five Republicans, only two have raised serious money: physician Scott DesJarlais and attorney Jack Bailey. DesJarlais has been in the race since last summer and has outspent Bailey, who joined the contest in January, by about $100,000. But as of mid-July, Bailey had more cash on hand for the final few weeks. Unlike the 3rd district primary, Bailey and DesJarlais seem content to avoid attacking each other and have saved their fire for Davis.

While the primary will certainly financially drain whoever emerges from the race, Davis isn’t exactly a Member with unlimited resources at his disposal. The Congressman reported just $472,000 in the bank on July 16. Davis is still favored to win this fall, but he’ll likely have to sweat it out until November in his strongly conservative district.

6th district Republican primary

The seat of retiring Rep. Bart Gordon (D) is often rated as the most likely to change hands this fall. But it remains unclear which Republican will formally move this district into the GOP column. The major players in the seven-way GOP primary are state Sens. Diane Black and Jim Tracy and former Rutherford County GOP Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik. Black released polling early last month showing her well ahead of Tracy and Zelenik, but attack ads and accusations of dirty campaign tricks have not been in short supply in recent weeks. Black and Zelenik seem to have a particular dislike for each other, and Black’s husband filed a defamation suit against Zelenik during the campaign.

Both Black and Zelenik have put about $400,000 of their own money into their campaigns. Tracy and Black had about $200,000 left to spend with just over three weeks to go, while Zelenik had about $250,000 on hand. National Democrats have made no noise about making a serious attempt to hold this district in November.

8th district Republican primary

Republicans see another good pickup opportunity in this battleground district that retiring Rep. John Tanner (D) is leaving behind. But before they can get there, they have to sort out a primary that has seen nearly $7 million in spending among the top GOP contenders and outside groups.

Farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher has become a poster boy for National Republican Congressional Committee recruitment efforts this cycle. Fincher was an early beneficiary of donations from top GOP leaders and was named to the highest level of the NRCC’s candidate recruitment program in late June. Most polls show him either ahead or tied for the lead. His top challengers are physician Ron Kirkland and Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn. Kirkland has been the beneficiary of more than $1.3 million in independent expenditures from a group run by his brother, while Flinn has dumped an eye-popping $2.9 million of his own money into the race.

Democrats say that regardless of what happens in the GOP primary, they will have the upper hand in November with state Sen. Roy Herron, who has socked away $1.2 million for the fall campaign while the Republicans have spent millions attacking each other. But in a conservative district that McCain won by 13 points in the 2008 presidential election, Republicans are certain they’ll be competitive this fall with whoever emerges as their nominee.

9th district Democratic primary

In this Memphis-based district, Rep. Steve Cohen’s (D) biggest hurdle to re-election comes in the primary.

Cohen won a crowded open-seat primary in 2006, when he was the only well-known white candidate running in the majority-black district, and went on to handily defeat attorney Nikki Tinker, who is black, in the 2008 primary. Race was a major issue in both those primaries, and this year’s battle appears to be no different. Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton (D) has said that the voters of the district would be better served by a black Congressman and that Tennessee’s Congressional delegation lacks diversity.

This cycle Cohen boasts an endorsement from President Barack Obama and support from the Congressional Black Caucus (which saw some of its members aid Tinker in 2008). More than a dozen CBC members have also given Cohen their individual endorsements.

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