Conventional wisdom says that a scandal-free incumbent like Lamar Alexander shouldn’t have much trouble winning re-election, but the Tea Party has worked very hard to upend that assumption this year, with Lamar Alexander as one of its prime targets.
Alexander is a former two-term governor who has served as both the president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. Secretary of Education. He’s the dictionary definition of the Republican establishment that the tea party wants badly to shake up. What’s more, he’s been a vocal advocate for reaching bipartisan agreements whenever possible, including at times when the party’s right-most wing would rather see officeholders take a hard line.
The campaign against Alexander essentially began before it had a candidate. Within the past year, it found its primary focus in state Representative Joe Carr. Since taking that office in 2008, the farmer from Lascassas has promoted strict immigration controls and efforts to eliminate certain taxes within Tennessee. He clearly had his sights set on moving to higher office; Carr began a campaign to unseat incumbent Congressman Scott DesJarlais before deciding to instead compete against Alexander.
Here’s how their race has played out:
July 1, 2009
Shortly after the first round of tea party rallies, movement leaders in Chattanooga penned an open letter to GOP officials, including Alexander, telling them to essentially sign on to the tea party platform or expect primary challenges.
We trust that you will view us as partners with you as you seek to pursue and champion sound fiscal policies. However, with no ill will intended, we also trust that you will understand that where votes are cast that are contrary to sound fiscal policies, we will seek to hold those casting such votes accountable – both immediately with our feedback and in the long term with our vote.
December 1, 2012
Alexander kicks off his re-election campaign with a show of support from the state’s top Republicans. Congressman John Duncan is named his campaign chair; Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, fellow Sen. Bob Corker and Congressmen Marsha Blackburn, Phil Roe, Diane Black, Chuck Fleischmann and Stephen Fincher — every GOP member of the Congressional delegation except embattled Scott DesJarlais — are honorary co-chairs.
December 9, 2012
A strongly-worded editorial from the Chattanooga Free Press responds to Alexander’s head start on the campaign, accusing the incumbent of “running scared.”
February 7, 2013
Tennessee’s Republican leaders continue to line up in support of Alexander. All 13 living former state party chairs sign on as honorary co-chairs of Alexander’s campaign. The following month, every former GOP senator and governor does the same.
July 5, 2013
Alexander’s first radio and television ads of the campaign go on the air.
July 20, 2013
Smyrna hosts dueling rallies: Inside, Lamar Alexander speaks to 500 with Mike Huckabee at his side (the former Presidential candidate would later appear in a video endorsement for Alexander); outside, 300 conservative activists rally around their common desire to have some as-yet-unnamed candidate “Beat Lamar.”
August 14, 2013
Tea Party groups from around the state ask Alexander not to run for third term in another open letter.
“Therefore, we urge you to conclude your long and notable career by retiring with dignity instead of fighting against a serious conservative primary challenger who would expose to all Tennessee voters the actual history of your voting record.”
August 20, 3013
State Rep. Joe Carr, a Republican from Lascassas, officially enters the Senate primary race against Alexander. Carr stops shy of fully accepting the label of “tea party” candidate, instead referring to the campaign ahead as a “David-versus-Goliath matchup.”
This marks an end to Carr’s plans of challenging Scott DesJarlais in the 4th Congressional district.
Political organizer Chip Saltsman promptly resigns from Carr’s team, pointing out that he is a longtime supporter of Alexander.
August 23, 2013
Conservative talk show hosts Ralph Bristol and Michael DelGiorno endorse Joe Carr. This is Bristol’s first ever endorsement in a statewide election.
September 16, 2013
TNGOP Chair Chris Devaney is accused of breaking party rules by effectively endorsing Alexander.
“GOP control of the Senate is in reach. With Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander on the ballot, we have the chance to help put Republicans in control of that chamber, too.”
September 26, 2013
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey declares Carr is unlikely to beat Alexander
September 30, 2013
Beat Lamar throws support behind Carr. Beat Lamar is project of Real Conservatives National Committee SuperPAC and held a handful of candidate-vetting events across the state before announcing its pick.
Carr also garners endorsements from the Nashville Tea Party, Mid-South Tea Party, Chattanooga Tea Party, Blount County Tea Party, Roane County Tea Party and Tri-Cities Tea Party as well as the Coalition for a Constitutional Senate, which is an informal coalition of 63 Tea Party and Liberty groups across the state.
October 21, 2013
Carr runs first anti-Alexander TV ad, accusing Alexander of conspiring with Democrats to pass Obamacare and criticizing Alexander’s support for a $3 million dam in Kentucky.
October 25, 2013
Alexander goes on the offensive against the Tea Party and national media takes notice.
But in speeches across the Volunteer State, Alexander is in the habit of delivering thinly veiled blasts against the “Washington people” and their “voting score cards” who propose to tell Tennesseans what it means to be a Republican. That’s clearly a shot at conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, two of the groups that have set new purity criteria for Republicans and have been funding primary challenges against many who do not meet their standards.
October 28, 2013
Knoxville Democrat enters race “just in case” Alexander loses primary.
December 11, 2013
Vanderbilt poll finds Carr lacks name recognition.
December 12, 2013
National Journal declares Carr’s campaign nonviable.
Alexander makes $400,000 TV ad buy. The television spot focuses on Alexander’s achievements, contends he fought against Obamacare–and does not acknowledge his competitor.
February 11, 2014
An Alexander memo, citing internal polling, claims the senator has a 3-1 lead on Carr.
February 23, 2014
Carr’s campaign announces raffle for Beretta 92A1 in celebration of the company opening a new factory in Tennessee, calling it a celebration of 2nd amendment rights. Neither Carr nor Alexander ultimately received a National Rifle Association endorsement, although the organization gave both high marks and, its president offered a personal endorsement to Alexander.
Carr’s bill to ban “crossover voting” in primaries fails in a state House committee. Carr intimates that Alexander used his influence to block the bill, assuming Alexander would benefit from Democratic-leaning voters casting ballots in the Republican primary.
April 1, 2014
Another tea party contender enters the race: Memphis multimillionaire radiologist and radio station owner George Flinn. Flinn says he’ll run only on the issue of a establishing a free-market approach to health care.
April 24, 2014
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorses Alexander.
May 6, 2014
Carr admits to erring in his financial disclosure; he failed to list a family-owned cattle ranch as an asset, although it was noted as a liability. The disclosure was filed nine months past the deadline.
Tennessee Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) endorses Carr.
A May Vanderbilt poll finds Alexander’s approval rating (when asked about multiple statewide political figures) at 49 percent overall, 56 percent among Republicans, 47 percent among tea party voters; found that 55 percent of GOP primary voters had never heard of Carr.
May 26, 2014
A Tea Party Nation poll shows Alexander with a 4-1 lead.
Appearing on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, Carr claims Alexander “departs radically from the Republican National Committee platform.”
May 28, 2014
A Carr ad claims Alexander, who is a former U.S. Secretary of Education, to be ducking the biggest educational issue of the day: Common Core. Carr is opposed to the new standards.
June 16, 2014
Carr is endorsed by a group of state legislators, all from Middle Tennessee: Sheila Butt (R-Columbia), Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma), Mark Pody (R-Lebanon), Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville), Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg), Rick Womick (R-Rockvale):
“The fact that just last week Sen. Alexander voted to support and confirm the person hand-picked by President Obama to implement ObamaCare* shows us just out-of-touch he has become.”
*HHS Secretary nominee Sylvia Burwell
June 25, 2014
The New York Times reports Carr is “emboldened” by Thad Cochran’s re-election in Mississippi. Although Chochran won, his tea party challenger came very close to unseating the incumbent. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and John Cornyn in Texas also beat tea party challengers. However, the tea party won in Virginia, where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to novice Dave Brat.
Economist and former Club For Growth board member Art Laffer endorses Alexander.
June 26, 2014
Newt Gingrich, for whom Carr once served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, endorses Alexander:
“We need Lamar’s experience and shrewdness to fix Washington.”
A new ad for Carr accuses Alexander of voting for amnesty for illegal immigrants. Analysis of the claims by Fact Check.org finds the ad to be false.
June 30, 2014
Rand Paul makes a campaign appearance with Lamar Alexander, although he stops short of issuing an endorsement.
On the same day, Joe Carr challenges Alexander to a debate. Alexander shows little interest.
July 2, 2014
A new Alexander ad features news footage of Alexander directly confronting President Obama about problems with implementation of Obamacare.
July 13, 2014
Joe Carr appears on Laura Ingraham’s nationally broadcast radio show; the next day Ingraham endorses Carr. The following week, she campaigns for him in person at a rally. Ingraham is credited with giving a leg up to Dave Brat’s succesful campaign to unseat House majority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.
A Triton poll finds Carr gaining on Alexander’s lead, showing the race at 43 percent (Alexander) to 36 percent (Carr) compared to 44-20 in May. At the same time, Alexander’s approval drops to 50.5 percent, down from 59 percent.
July 15, 2014
TIME Magazine declares Alexander “The Tea Party’s Next Target”:
“Alexander has campaigned like a man at risk.”
July 20, 2014
Ted Cruz appears at Carr’s “We The People” rally but stops short of explicit endorsement.
July 23, 2014
Sarah Palin endorses Carr on her Facebook page.
“Unfortunately, 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. It’s time for a change.”
Federal campaign finance disclosures show Citizens 4 Ethics in Government, led by Nashville millionaire and “arch conservative” Andrew Miller, paid $250,000 for ads attacking Alexander and $31,000 in direct donations to Carr. Miller’s company, Life Watch Pharmacy, loaned the campaign $200,000 and the campaign paid it back with $9,564 in interest. The Federal Election Commission investigated that loan to determine whether it was an attempt by Miller to sidestep limits on personal contributions; Miller had already donated his $2,600 maximum.
July 28, 2014
Flinn accuses Carr of being just as big a flip flopper as both he and Carr claim Alexander to be.
Talk radio host Mark Levin endorses Carr, implying race has grown tighter in recent weeks.
Al Cardenas, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, endorses Alexander.
July 31, 2014
After months of running against Carr, Alexander acknowledges his opponent by name for the first time in a campaign flier.