Joe Carr’s Strong Turnout Shows Tea Party’s Strength, But Now They Must Wait Until 2018

State Rep. Joe Carr says he chose to make his run official in front of a hospital in Murfreesboro to underscore the case he'll press against the federal healthcare overhaul. Credit Daniel Potter/WPLN

State Rep. Joe Carr won 40 percent of the vote for U.S. Senate on Thursday. Credit: Daniel Potter

Tea Party upstart Joe Carr performed better than many had expected in his matchup with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, and political analysts say last week’s primary results show that Tennessee has a strong base of hard-line conservative voters. But they won’t have a shot at statewide office again until 2018.

The little-known state representative Joe Carr had the backing late in the race of conservative radio host Laura Ingraham — she also backed Dave Brat, who stunned many when he upset Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin came out in support of Carr as well, applauding his firm position on immigration, as the Washington Post notes.

Alexander had a more recognizable name and a big war chest — a 5-to-1 fundraising advantage over Carr. Yet the final tally was Alexander at 49.6 percent and Carr at 40.9 percent.

By many measures, Carr had an impressive showing. He won in Davidson County, Williamson, Rutherford and nearly all the rest of Middle Tennessee.

Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy at Vanderbilt, said if more national tea party organizations, and other “hard right” groups, would have known Carr had a chance of commanding 40 percent of the vote, more money would have probably flowed into his campaign.

Previous challengers to Alexander, such as Ed Bryant, in 2002, put up a similar fight. Then, Alexander pulled 54 percent of the vote, compared to Bryant’s 43, and that, as Oppenheimer points out, predates the tea party.

“It’s not just the tea party. It’s a more conservative element within the Republican party, which hasn’t been able to win primaries,” Oppenheimer said. “They’ve faced well-financed, established candidates.”

He said some tea party supporters look at the Carr turnout and think it will give them momentum. Yet establishment Republicans like Gov. Bill Haslam and Sen. Bob Corker are likely in office for another four years and Alexander is likely in for another six, so the more right-leaning underdogs have at least another four years until they can make a run at statewide office.  

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