Gizzi on Politics February 23, 2009

Wamp Out; Gobble Up?

Awaiting a flight at Reagan National Airport on January 14, SW (Smarter Wife) and I ran into Rep. Zach Wamp (R.-Tenn.). Wamp told us that after eight terms he was leaving Congress in 2010 to run for governor of the Volunteer State.  As to who would succeed him as U.S. representative from his suburban 3rd District, the conservative lawmaker would say only, “There will be several Republicans running, and that will mean a big turnout in the primary in my area, and that will help in the primary for governor.” Wamp (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%) is one of a handful of Republican members of the “Gingrich Class” that put the House in GOP hands in 1994 who are still serving in Congress. It seems only yesterday I was writing my first “Race of the Week” feature on Wamp, how the young salesman had freely admitted his successful battles against alcoholism and drug addiction. Moving audiences with his saga of how being an “overcomer” of personal demons would make him a principled congressman, Wamp nearly upset nine-term Democratic Rep. Marilyn Lloyd in 1992. When Lloyd stepped down in ’94, Wamp won the open seat with ease and has never had trouble winning re-election.  

Now, like so many of his colleagues in the 178-member Republican minority in the House, Wamp is going “up or out” next year. And there is sure to be a crowded GOP primary in the 3rd District, which includes all or parts of 11 counties from the Georgia to Kentucky borders.  

Lawman First

With the news that Wamp was running for governor, Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble became the first Republican to enter the race for the seat. A former U.S. Secret Service agent, Gobble was elected top lawman of his county in 2006. In launching his bid for Congress, he spelled out a conservative agenda, vowing to work for freedom, limited government, low taxes, and safety and security.  

Two other heavyweight GOPers who are also considered conservatives are eyeing the race. State Party Chairman Robin Smith signaled last week that she might run, as did State Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga. Gulf War veteran McCormick told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the GOP takeover of the state House last fall and unexpected election of State Rep. Kent Williams as speaker means that he would not be elected House Republican Caucus chairman. So McCormick is taking a “serious” look at Wamp’s seat.  

Other Republicans exploring the race include State Senators Bo Watson of Hixson and Dewayne Bunch of Cleveland, both conservatives.

Given redistricting after the ’01 Census and Wamp’s record of winning with ease, there would seem to be little chance of Democrats, retaking the 3rd District after 16 years. But Tennessee Democrats note that when entrenched Republican Rep. Van Hilleary left the 4th District in ’02, they were able to pick up his seat easily with conservative Democrat Lincoln Davis. Last week, however, the candidate Democrats had counted on as their best hope in the 3rd, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, announced he would stay in his present office rather than run for Congress.

Musical (GOP) Chairs

One of the things that became clear before, during, and after the recent Republican National Committee meeting that elected Michael Steele as RNC chairman is that it’s very difficult to keep track of state GOP chairmen. They keep changing, and chairmen of different ideological bent come to the party helm in various states.  

In Oregon, for example, conservatives were cheered by former State Rep. Bob Tiernan’s election as state chairman last month. A U.S. Naval Reserve officer, Tiernan defeated more moderate GOPer Lynn Snodgress, a former House speaker by a 75-to-39 vote of the Republican State Central Committee. Best known for his spirited battles with public employee unions while a state legislator in the ’90s, Tiernan lost bids for the state supreme court and state senate. Tiernan was also known as a vociferous opponent of tax increases.  

As much as he is a favorite of conservatives, Tiernan has sent out signals he will reach out to more middle-road Republicans. Recently, he spoke to moderate former Sen. (1996-2008) Gordon Smith, who narrowly lost re-election last fall, about making a comeback bid next year against Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.  

Another GOP chairman elected last month who is well known to his state’s conservative movement is Mark Fahleson of Nebraska. The Lincoln attorney and lay Lutheran church leader served as legislative director and chief of staff to conservative Rep. (1994-98) Jon Christensen (R.-Neb.) and was later Lancaster County GOP chairman.  

A moderate succeeded a moderate in the Massachusetts Republican Party. Last week, attorney Jennifer Nassour, once state director of personnel under liberal Gov. (2001-02) Jane Swift, won the party chairmanship relinquished by liberal former Rep. (1992-97) Peter Torkildsen (R.-Mass.). Nassour drew 49 votes from the state committee to 15 for Joseph Manzoli, who managed conservative Jeff Beatty’s campaign for the Senate last year, and two votes for Michael Franco of Holyoke.  

The 37-year-old Nassour becomes chairman at a time when Republicans hold no statewide offices in the Bay State and only 16 house seats and five senate seats in the 200-member state legislature.