GOP Candidates Mount Costly House Race In Tenn.

fromWPLN

The most costly House race this election cycle is in west Tennessee, where two doctors and a farmer are spending millions just to win the GOP nomination. They're vying for an open seat. Rep. John Tanner is retiring from the seat he's held for two decades in an area that has been represented by Democrats for a century. Republicans see a potential takeover target and have invested heavily in the primary fight, which has taken on a negative tone.

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Now to this election season's most costly House primary. For more than a century, a Democrat has represented the farm towns and suburbs of west Tennessee. Over the last two decades, it's been John Tanner, a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat. But now he is retiring and Republicans see an opportunity.

From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports on the three candidates vying for the Republican nomination.

BLAKE FARMER: Two doctors and a farmer have shelled out more than $5 million between them buying ad time in Memphis and Nashville and stuffing all the mailboxes in between

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: One candidate stands out: George Flinn. He's the only...

FARMER: As his ad in heavy rotation suggests, Flinn does stand out. He's a radiologist by trade and made his money owning more than 40 TV and radio stations. Flinn has outspent his opponents three to one by putting in nearly $3 million of his own fortune.

Dr. GEORGE FLINN (Republican Congressional Candidate): I didn't get it donated from so-and-so. I made it myself, and I'm spending it to get the message out because my kids, my grandkids deserve better than they're getting.

FARMER: While the big spender, even Flinn's own polls show him trailing the other two GOP candidates. Out front has been Stephen Fincher.

Mr. STEPHEN FINCHER (Republican Congressional Candidate): I'm from Frog Jump, Tennessee. I'm a farmer.

FARMER: Working a room of Republican voters, Fincher lays into the party in power and plays up his common man credentials.

Mr. FINCHER: You know, I didn't graduate college, and I'm afraid some people with more education than I have will think I'm not smart enough. And I had a fellow asked me one day, he said, well, I don't think that's an issue. And he said, you're smarter than Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank, aren't you? And I said yeah. He said...

FARMER: Fincher is the National Republican Congressional Committee's pick. The NRCC has helped the political novice's campaign and raised money.

Dr. RON KIRKLAND (Republican Congressional Candidate): My question is what does he owe them in return? I don't owe them anything.

FARMER: Ron Kirkland criticizes Fincher both as connected to Washington but also inexperienced. The first time Fincher traveled to Washington was to meet with the NRCC. Kirkland is a physician from Jackson, whose name is better known because of his brother Robert who cofounded the Kirkland's chain of home decor stores. That brother is running something of a shadow campaign. He spent more than a million dollars on an independent expenditure, airing ads that slam Kirkland's opponents.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman #2: How about a radio mogul whose station promotes gang violence, drug abuse and insults women? Well, George Flinn is that man.

FARMER: Negative ads have come from every direction in a race where all three Republicans want to repeal what they call Obamacare. Ron Kirkland has been jabbed for lobbying for direct payments to doctors under the health care overhaul. Since he's calling for spending cuts across the government, he's had to backtrack.

Dr. KIRKLAND: I can't then turn around and say except for the things that I was for when I was a doctor and in charge of American Medical Group Association. I have to be sincere enough, have to be meaningful enough to say let's cut the group that I represented too.

FARMER: Kirkland has tried deflecting the attention toward the millions of dollars Fincher has received over the years in farming subsidies. Fincher says he has no choice. He's also playing defense for a voting in Democratic primaries as recently as this year.

Dr. FINCHER: If you want to vote in Crockett County in local elections, we've never had anything but Democratic primaries.

FARMER: It shows just how entrenched the Democratic Party still is in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District, even though voters here have turned more Republican over the last two decades. The winner of this week's high-spending primary will still have a hill to climb in the general election - a minister-attorney and well-liked state senator named Roy Herron is sitting on a million dollars waiting to meet the GOP nominee on the other side of election night.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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