Tea Party’s Senate game plan falling apart

After losses in Mississippi and Oklahoma Tuesday night, national Tea Party groups have little chance left to knock off another Senate incumbent this year.

There are slim pickings left for the final stretch of 2014 GOP primary contests, no matter the bravado of some of the movement’s most hopeful candidates in Tennessee and Kansas.

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Dave Brat’s shocking victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) earlier this month gave hope to Tea Party challengers running for the Senate. But now, Cantor’s loss looks more like an aberration than a harbinger of things to come.

Tea Party Senate hopefuls are facing a brave new world and a stark dose of reality after Chris McDaniel, the Tea Party’s last, best hope, fell short in Mississippi.

If my inbox over the past few weeks is any indication, Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr (R) is the candidate most aggressively trying to make the case that he, too, could upset a longtime incumbent.

Give him points for trying. He’s seized on Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) votes and has been aggressive in making himself available to the national press. He has specifically highlighted Alexander’s support for the Senate-passed immigration bill, as well as Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) new gas tax proposal.

Brat didn’t need a lot of money to pull the stunner in the Richmond suburbs, but in a statewide race, where Carr still has little name ID and no way to compete with Alexander’s $3.1 million on hand, he needs support from outside groups to be competitive in the Aug. 7 primary. And that hasn’t happened.

The key point that Carr seems to have missed is that he isn’t just trying to upset a creature of Washington, much like both Cochran and Cantor had become. In Tennessee, Lamar, as he’s colloquially known, is an institution.

In full disclosure, I’m a native East Tennessean. I was born when Alexander was governor during the 1980s. My father always referred to his red and black flannel shirt as his “Lamar” shirt after Alexander’s famous garment he wore on the campaign trail. 

Many family members and friends had tales of Alexander’s infamous 1,000-mile trek across the Volunteer State when he was making his first statewide bid. 

Carr has tried to downplay that, telling The Hill earlier this year, “Lamar’s appeal in the state is broad, but very, very shallow. ... People understand that they like him, but they like him within the context of a grandfather or a great-grandfather.”  

Maybe most importantly, Alexander has a residence back in Tennessee and comes back to the state virtually every weekend. There’s not been a question about where he does or doesn’t reside, in contrast to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who also faces a primary challenge.

It was the same story with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who seemed a year ago as though he might be in the fight of his life in a GOP primary. Instead, as Cantor was going down in defeat, Graham crushed his other opponents.

I heard the same descriptions about Alexander that I did about Graham. Both shored up their base early and came home often.

GOP strategist Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee State Party chairman who managed Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid, was initially working with Carr when he was running against Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.). But when Carr made the switch, Saltsman stepped down from the campaign in a very public letter, saying his allegiance was to Alexander.

Saltsman admits he’s differed with Alexander sometimes, but says, “even if we disagree, I know he’s been very thoughtful” when he makes a decision he thinks is best for the state.

He emphasized that Alexander’s likely success in the primary isn’t something that quickly came together.

“The Lamar race has been won over the last six years, not the last six months,” said Saltsman.

“People may disagree with him on votes, but you can’t say that he’s not a continual presence at home,” one Tennessee Republican told me Wednesday morning. “Lamar is an institution, and taking down an institution is very difficult. It’s not unachievable, but it is when you have someone who is paying attention at the level he is.”

If a Tea Party challenge gets legs, it could be in Kansas. Physician Milton Wolf attracted momentum in his race against Roberts after The New York Times reported that the GOP senator didn’t have a permanent residence in the state. Instead, he rented a room from donors when he visited Kansas.

Wolf has dubbed Roberts the “senator from Virginia” and noted Roberts’s wife is a real estate agent in Alexandria, Va.

Still, Wolf was badly damaged, after it was revealed he had posted gruesome pictures and commentary about patient X-Rays on his Facebook page. 

Even if the Tea Party strikes out in its Senate challenges this year, there are sure to be more in 2016, when 23 Republican members of the upper chamber will face the voters. But if they follow the Graham/Alexander playbook, they should be just fine.