Joe Carr vs. Lamar Alexander: The Tea Party's Last Stand in the Senate
In Tennessee, Thursday’s primary is the Tea Party’s last chance to unseat an incumbent senator before the 2014 general elections.
Local Tea Party groups are supporting state Representative Joe Carr’s bid to topple two-term incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander. The choice is clear for Tea Party conservatives. In their eyes, Alexander is not a conservative fighter, but someone who has a record of voting and working with Democrats in the Senate.
In his last days, the mild-mannered Senator has traveled the state on a bus tour, hoisting his historic flannel shirt that served as a banner of common sense when he was governor of the state.
“I’d like to continue what I’m doing, with one exception: I’d like to be in the majority,” he explained to The Tennessean editorial board, touting Republicans' chance to beat Democrats in the fall.
If Republicans take the Senate, Alexander has indicated he would likely be the chairman of the Education, Health, Labor, and the Energy Appropriations Committees.
“I’m a results-oriented conservative,” he added. “I don’t just make speeches. I try to get results.”
But Alexander’s willingness to work with Democrats has led conservatives in the state to call him “Liberal Lamar” and the “Mushy Moderate.”
“Lamar Alexander is not a conservative. Lamar Alexander has never been a conservative. Lamar Alexander will never be a conservative,” asserted Ben Cunningham, Nashville Tea Party president, in a press conference last month. “If he is re-elected, God forbid, he will go back to the Senate, he will serve for six years, he will warm the seat, he will be a mushy moderate--just like he’s been a mushy moderate for the last 12 years.”
Chief among his sins, according to anti-amnesty critics, is Alexander’s support for the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, denounced as pro-amnesty. The immigration reform debate, combined with the white-hot issue of the border crisis this summer, have put Alexander’s support of the bill in the spotlight.
That’s why this year, conservatives have chosen Carr as their champion. Carr is a fiery conservative with a record of championing legislation to curb illegal immigration in the state of Tennessee.
Although he struggled to gain traction in the early stages of his campaign, Carr earned the support of talk radio host Laura Ingraham, who has made the fight against amnesty a central talking point on her show.
Ingraham hosted a boisterous campaign rally for Carr in July, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin endorsed him just days later. That was the beginning of a wave that Carr hopes to ride to victory Thursday in the polls.
Carr faces tough odds, as Alexander only needs to win a simple majority to beat him. Last week, Alexander released internal polls claiming a 29-point lead in his primary, while Carr was at 24 percent. George Flinn, another Republican primary candidate, had five percent support. In Tennessee, there is no runoff election, so the candidate with the majority wins the primary.
But this does not discourage Carr supporters, who point to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s internal polling before the election, which also showed him winning by over 30 points against his challenger David Brat. David Brat’s unlikely victory against Cantor is one bright spot in the Tea Party’s effort to unseat unpopular incumbents in 2014.
In the Senate, however, conservative challengers have failed to upset even the most vulnerable incumbents in conservative states. On Tuesday, three-term Kansas Senator Pat Roberts beat Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf by about seven points.
Vulnerable Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who sought a seventh term, initially lost to his challenger Chris McDaniel before eking out a win in the runoff election. (McDaniel has challenged the results of the election, claiming that Cochran illegally relied on Democrats to boost his election numbers.)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily beat his challenger Matt Bevin, and Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn never had a serious primary challenge.
Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi, running for his fourth term, briefly faced a challenge from Liz Cheney, before she dropped out of the race in January.