JACKSON Tenn. (Reuters) - The shock defeat
of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary in Virginia
this week has fueled hopes among Tea Party activists in Tennessee that
they can stage a similar upset against Senator Lamar Alexander in
But the Cantor loss, while enough to shake Washington and the
Republican establishment, may not be a sign of things to come as the
Tea Party movement has yet to show this year it can find a
consistent winning formula against Republican incumbents.
In Tennessee, Alexander’s challenger - Tea Party state
representative Joe Carr – is regarded by many political experts as
unqualified for a Senate race and he is trailing by up to 40 points
in the polls. He is also up against a lawmaker who is well prepared
and a statewide Republican Party that is pushing to thwart the Tea
"It's important not to rule out an upset after Cantor's upset," said
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "But
so far there's not much indication that the challenge against
Alexander has gained much traction."
Often fractured and lacking in resources, the Tea Party is finding
it difficult to prosper in races for the U.S. Senate, where the
fight for control of Congress will be decided.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Senator
Lindsey Graham in South Carolina have both seen off challenges this
year. Tennessee's Alexander knew he too could be vulnerable. So,
like them, the two-term senator moved early to fend off a challenge,
marshalling Tennessee's leading Republicans behind him, raising $5.3
million and campaigning actively in the state.
By contrast, Cantor’s loss has been widely seen as a result of his
over-confidence, neglect of his district and voter anger at someone
who had a pivotal leadership role in a gridlocked Congress.
“Lamar Alexander has taken the threat of a primary challenger
seriously right from the start," said Republican strategist Ford
O'Connell. "He knew he had a target on his back."
On paper, the Tea Party movement should wield heavy influence in a
conservative state like Tennessee where no Democrat has won a Senate
race since 1994. Republicans have a super majority in both houses in
the state legislature and Democrats have just seven seats in the
33-member Senate. Conservatives joke the Democratic caucus is small
enough to meet in a Ford Explorer.
But Tea Party conservatives have alienated other Republicans. Not
just within the "establishment," but also among long-time
conservatives like state Senator Todd Gardenhire, who was state
co-chairman for President Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns.
"The Tea Party is unyielding and unbending," he said. "Even though
we are aligned on many issues, they force you to take stands that
you don't want to and if you don't pass a 110 percent purity test
then they turn against you."
Legislation backed by the Tea Party has been stymied by mainstream
Republicans in Tennessee, especially Governor Bill Haslam. He
supported Common Core education standards, which are anathema to
many conservatives who see them taking education choices away from
individuals and local communities. Tea Party activists accuse him of
preventing "open carry" gun legislation becoming law here.
"Tennessee is a very conservative state, but we are unable to pass
conservative legislation because of the establishment," said David
Vance, a Tea Party activist in western Tennessee.
The governor also riled conservatives this year by opposing cutting
the state's tax on dividend income. Tennessee has no state income
Just as Tea Party conservatives have targeted more mainstream
Republicans at the state legislature, in turn moderates have
targeted two conservative legislators known as Tea Party champions
in primaries this year.
"The Republican old guard in Tennessee has been very disciplined and
very organized when it comes to raising money," Democratic state
Senate caucus leader Lowe Finney said.
The lack of a viable Senate candidate is a large part of the problem
for Tea Party hopes in Tennessee as it has been in some past races
like the one fought by Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010. She
was vilified for comments she made 11 years earlier about dabbling
in witchcraft and after she declared during the campaign that she
was “not a witch.”.
While the Tea Party's stance on fiscal issues has often been the
attraction for conservatives, Carr's career in Tennessee's state
legislature has been heavily focused on tough legislation targeting
illegal immigration and favoring gun rights. Earlier this year as
part of his Senate campaign he raffled off a Beretta 92A1 handgun.
Prior to declaring his Senate candidacy, Carr was running against
incumbent Republican U.S. Representative Scott DesJarlais but was
seen as trailing In that race.
"Usually when you get big footed out of a race you opt for a lower
office, not a higher one," the University of Virginia's Kondik said.
"Carr is just not the type of top-tier candidate that Lamar
Alexander should worry about."
Carr's fundraising of under $900,000 as of the end of March has
lagged far behind Alexander's and although he has a lot of Tea Party
support, other groups say privately that they had hoped for a more
viable candidate than Carr.
"We like Joe Carr, we like what he has done at the state legislature
for us," said one Tea Party leader who spoke on condition of
anonymity. "But he's just not Senate material."
While national conservative groups like the Club for Growth, the
Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks put millions of dollars
into the unsuccessful challenge against McConnell and have been
actively engaged in the ongoing battle to unseat Senator Thad
Cochran in Mississippi, none of them has endorsed Carr or backed him
Carr's local Tea Party backers argue that Cantor's opponent David
Brat did not have national backing or serious funding either.
"Cantor's defeat shows what we can achieve," said Richard Archie of
the Tennessee 8th District Tea Party Coalition, many of whose
members intend to canvass voters for Carr ahead of the primary. "We
believe that with grassroots support Joe Carr can win."
But Republican strategist O'Connell says a Senate race is far more
challenging to win than a House race because of the large distances
you need to travel and the many more media markets you need compete
Carr is also further hampered by the limited resources of the
national conservative groups who can only compete in a few races and
need to deliver results to help raise more money, O'Connell said.