Can 'Tennessee's institution' survive the Tea Party's wrath?

Jessica Taylor

MARYVILLE, Tenn. — Thirty-six years ago, Lamar Alexander walked across the state in his first successful bid for governor, donning his now-iconic red and black plaid shirt. 

Now, the 74-year-old senator is making the trek across Tennessee by bus as he faces what could be his toughest GOP race yet. 

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Known simply as Lamar around these parts, the former governor, U.S. secretary of Education, two-time presidential candidate and now two-term senator, is undoubtedly an institution.

But as the Republican Party nationwide and even in Tennessee has changed, there’s a growing voice that the senator hasn’t and needs to go. 

Alexander certainly has the heavy edge heading into the August 7 primary, where he faces six opponents. Chief among them is state Rep. Joe Carr, who’s tried to latch onto the Tea Party fervor to oust the incumbent.

Carr has gotten the endorsements of conservative radio icon Laura Ingraham, who hosted a rally for him in Nashville this week, urging a crowd to retire Alexander like an “old sweater.” 

He also netted the backing of former 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who wrote that “advocating and voting for amnesty, cash for clunkers, bailouts, raising the debt ceiling, and many controversial Obama administration nominees has marred the incumbent’s record.”

But without significant monetary help from powerful national groups, the challenger’s hopes are unlikely to bring down the muscle Alexander still commands throughout the state. 

One of the reasons Alexander has long been seen as untouchable is because he never took his foot off the gas pedal, as some of his other Senate colleagues who fell to primary insurgents did. An Alexander aide says in his two terms in the Senate he’s spent more than half of his nights back in Tennessee. They’ve heavily outspent their opponent on statewide television, running positive spots featuring endorsements from former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) and his Senate predecessor, Fred Thompson. 

“I think that what my job is to try and get a result,” Alexander tells a crowd at an ice cream social in Morristown on Friday afternoon before heading down the interstate to an evening barbecue hosted by the Washington County mayor that drew over 500 invitees. 

“I’m not in the shut down the government crowd, I’m in the taking over the government crowd,” the senator says to applause as he talks of his record working with both Republicans and Democrats for nearly 40 years. He smiles at ease with the crowd and greets familiar faces he's known for years.

The ‘good senator from Maryville’ 

Alexander, once the No. 3 Republican in the Senate before he stepped down from leadership three years ago, holds his wife Honey’s hand as they enter their Maryville polling place.

Over half the state’s GOP voters are likely to cast their ballot early, and turnout is up significantly since 2010. Hotly contested local contests across the state are likely to drive up the numbers, along with a conservative push to oust a trio of state Supreme Court justices up for reelection.

Fern Keasler of Maryville, who’s manning an orange University of Tennessee tent outside the polling place, says he remains a strong Alexander supporter, citing the work he’s done for decades for the state’s parks and highways. 

“I think he’s always had the people of Tennessee in mind,” says Keasler, “and the people know that. It’s going to take more than Joe Carr or anybody else to beat him….Lamar don’t need the job, the job needs Lamar.” 

But Jamie Daly, who’s running for the Blount County Commission, disagrees. She sits in a lawn chair, holding a “Beat Lamar” sign as the senator’s car drives by. 

“He started out ok, but in the last 10 years he seems to be like one of the good ole boys — he just votes whatever is good for him, he’s not voting for values that are important to Tennessee,” says Daly, who’s supporting Carr. 

The senator casts his ballot and kicks off his final push just blocks away from the highway that bears his name, Lamar Alexander Parkway, running through his hometown just south of Knoxville. 

At Sullivan’s Restaurant in downtown Maryville, a cadre of local and state GOP supporters are there to welcome him in a room decked out in red and black plaid. He shakes each hand before heading east on his inaugural trek on his bus, emblazoned with “Standing Up for Tennessee” along the side. 

Alexander dismisses criticisms that he’s moved too far to the center, citing his NRA endorsement and “A” rating with the National Right to Life. 

“The difference is that there are conservatives who want to make a speech and conservatives who want to govern, and I’m in the latter category,” he told The Hill aboard his campaign bus, which once chauffeured Chris Christie around the Garden State in his 2009 run for governor.

“Tennesseans know me as a conservative with an independent streak.” 

It’s much different accommodations than when Alexander made that 1978 walk across the vast state to win his first campaign. He laughs and says he could still make the trek — “If I have to I will,” he says with a grin — and it’s one he still has fond memories of and often runs into people and families he stayed with over three decades ago. 

Alexander frequently speaks about wanting to work in a GOP majority, which may have been one of the reasons he sought another term. He says he doesn’t have “any ambition to be back in the elected leadership” but notes if the Senate flips, he’d be the new chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and lead the Energy Appropriations Subcommittee. 

“We’ve got somebody in Washington who has some clout,” boasted Hamblen County Commissioner Stancil Ford as he introduced Alexander in Morristown. 

The Tea Party’s last hope 

Joe Carr doesn’t travel in a luxury bus like his opponent does. He drove himself on Thursday evening to speak to the Ooltewah Nightside Pachyderm Club at a Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse just north of Chattanooga, accompanied only by his daughter who doubles as his scheduler and two other aides. 

Carr hoped the upset of Majority Leader Eric Cantor was the jolt his campaign needed, but a district race hasn't translated the same to a statewide campaign.

His rhetoric is often fiery and combative, calling President Obama the “tyrant in the White House,” yet still punctuated with a folksy, friendly drawl. 

He tells voters his rhyming refrain: "Vote Carr, Beat Lamar," as he lays out his case against the incumbent, who he usually refers to as the “good senator from Maryville” or just “Lamar.”

His bible for listing Alexander’s many sins that he reads from: the Republican National Committee’s 2012 platform. 

On healthcare, he says that even though Alexander voted against the original ObamaCare bill, Carr has a a parliamentary lesson “off into the weeds where the ticks and chiggers are” to explain that Alexander’s vote for cloture during last year’s government shutdown standoff instead of standing with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to try to defund the program was the real mistake. 

“When he voted yes on cloture, he said yes to Harry Reid for funding ObamaCare,” said Carr. “Votes matter, but not all votes matter the same.” 

His most fireable offense, according to Carr, is on the red-hot issue of immigration. The state legislator touts his own accomplishments to strengthen the state’s laws and says there is “no issue of greater contrast” between the two. 

“Lamar Alexander has voted for amnesty and supports amnesty for 11 million illegals that are costing $40 billion,” said Carr. 

The crowd of about 25 people is mostly receptive to Carr’s message, many of whom have similar complaints about Alexander. 

Daniel Appleget of Hixson says that “Lamar has served the state well in the past” but should have retired, citing his “poor votes” and low conservative scores. Still, even he’s skeptical that an upset is brewing because of the crowded primary. Unlike other Southern states, there’s no runoff in Tennessee, so Alexander only needs a plurality, not a majority, to win. 

“I feel like there is plenty of opposition to Lamar, but I feel like there’s going to be too many voters that go and vote against Lamar that will vote randomly and give Lamar the election simply because he has the name recognition,” said Appleget. 

Carr told The Hill that of course he wished he would have more national help to boost his bid, but argued that much of the Beltway skepticism of his chances stems from the fact that there’s been no turnout model to measure challenges to a sitting incumbent, only recent open-seat primaries, and that 2014 will be a unique election. 

“He is a Tennessee institution,” Carr admits. But he says Alexander is running on his success from decades ago, including helping build up the state’s automotive industry, but that his recent achievements have run dry. “For crying out loud, that was 30 years ago.”