Lamar Alexander ready for tea party challenge

For all its bluster about taking back the government, the tea party movement hasn’t had a good track record this year of knocking off incumbents

For all its bluster about taking back the government, the tea party movement hasn’t had a good track record this year of knocking off incumbents in Congress, as demonstrated by U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory this week over tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi.

Political analysts say that bodes well for the movement’s next big target: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

The tea party’s string of losses in Mississippi and other states in this year’s primaries should send a clear message to Alexander and other establishment Republicans that “those who prepare reap the rewards,” said Scott J. Jennings, a political consultant who worked in the White House political office under President George W. Bush.

“If you organize and you campaign and you don’t take (anything) for granted, you can absolutely win, even if the tea party is coming after you,” Jennings said. “And from everything I’ve heard, Lamar Alexander is absolutely prepared.”

Cochran’s razor-thin win over McDaniel in Tuesday’s run-off election dealt a serious blow to the tea tarty because the six-term Republican had been considered the most likely Senate incumbent to fall to a tea party challenger.

Cochran is far from the first Senate Republican this year to fend off a tea party insurgent. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas all faced primary challenges from tea party candidates, yet still pulled off comfortable wins. In Oklahoma, U.S. Rep. James Lankford defeated T.W. Shannon on Tuesday in the race for the Senate seat being vacated by Tom Coburn, even though Shannon had the backing of tea party favorites Sarah Palin and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

The tea party’s most high-profile victory this year has been in Virginia, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor fell two weeks ago to a little-known political novice named Dave Brat. But Brat’s victory came in a single congressional district, not in a statewide campaign, where a candidate must have broader appeal to win an election.

Regardless, the tea party has begun turning its attention to Tennessee, where Alexander’s most serious challenger in the Aug. 7 primary is state Rep. Joe Carr, who has the backing of various tea party groups.

“Make no mistake about it – the fight that Chris McDaniel started in Mississippi will continue here in Tennessee,” Carr said in a statement shortly after McDaniel came up short against Cochran.

Alexander’s campaign spokesman, Brian Reisigner, responded by noting that the two-term senator has “strong statewide leadership and grassroots conservative support, $3 million in cash on hand and, according to recent polls, a 4-to-1 lead over his six opponents.”

Political analysts agree Alexander is likely to become the next establishment Republican to turn back a tea party challenge.

“Lamar Alexander is in very good shape,” said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, who described Alexander as a well-funded, highly skilled campaigner with a long political resume and deep roots in the state

In recent weeks, Alexander has taken steps to remind voters of his conservative credentials. He has begun running radio ads featuring country singer Kix Brooks and has won the backing of groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business. This week alone, Alexander’s campaign has announced endorsements from Art Laffer, a top economist under President Ronald Reagan, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said Alexander “represents the best of conservatism.”

The Gingrich endorsement in particular was noteworthy because Carr was a Gingrich delegate during the 2012 presidential race. Gingrich said he thinks Carr is “a terrific person,” but “in this particular race, I think that Lamar Alexander is better for Tennessee and better for America.”

What’s more, Geer said, the political landscape in Tennessee seems to favor Alexander.

Just 14 percent of voters in the state identify themselves as members of the tea party, according to Vanderbilt polling. For a statewide campaign, that is relatively small pool of voters – a pool that could be diluted even further in this year’s Senate race given that the field includes five other Republicans in addition to Alexander and Carr.

Tennessee may be a conservative state, Geer said, “but there is a strong streak of pragmatism to that conservatism” – something that could benefit Alexander, who is known as a deal-maker in Congress.

Still, it would be premature to write a post-mortem for the tea party movement, said Anthony Nownes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee.

 “Even when they fail to win elections, they succeed in pulling the party to the right on a number of issues,” Nownes said. “As long as they continue to pull the party to the right, they are going to be influential.”

Michael Collins is the Scripps Washington correspondent for the Knoxville News Sentinel and The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. To contact Michael about this story, email him at or find him on Twitter at @mcollinsSCRIPPS
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