Conservatives have poured millions into primary challenges to senators this cycle, even in races where chances of success were slim.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has proved one of the greatest exceptions, and now he’s poised to defeated state Rep. Joe Carr and several lesser-known challengers in the Aug. 7 GOP primary.
So how did Alexander avoid the fate of many of his colleagues?
“I mean, on my letter head are most of the people who could run against me and most of the people who could manage a campaign against me, so I have that kind of support from the beginning,” Alexander told CQ Roll Call in an interview in his Washington, D.C. office.
The Senator made clear he would seek re-election early on, and, in December 2012, announced support from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and the state’s entire congressional delegation, barring scandal-tarred Rep. Scott DesJarlais. He also had the backing every living former Tennessee GOP chairman.
Alexander also explained he raised formidable from the start of the cycle — a deterrent to any potential challengers. In April of 2013, for example, he raised $1 million, which he added to the $1 million he already had in his campaign coffers.
In the last two cycles, conservatives successfully ended the careers of Sen. Richard G. Lugar and Sen. Robert F. Bennett. They’ve so far failed to oust an incumbent senator this cycle, though Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., only narrowly won his party’s nod in June.
Alexander said he was careful not to repeat the mistakes of his former colleagues.
“I think those races where my colleagues were unsuccessful reminded me of what I already knew, which is when you run for re-election, you start over from scratch, and you work your way back up again,” he said. “You don’t just step over from one term to another term.”
Alexander has also tended to his home state, unlike some of those now-former colleagues. The efforts appear to have served Alexander well: an internal poll released by his campaign last week showed him at 53 percent, 29 points ahead of Carr.
But the poll also showed another Alexander strength: His greatest support is in Eastern Tennessee, his home, also the part of the state that historically has the most Republican primary votes.
“Over the last 12 years I’ve spent more nights in Tennessee than I have in Washington,” Alexander said, sitting in his office amidst artifacts curated from the Museum of Appalachia. “Most people who get in trouble in politics usually get in trouble because they’re disconnected from the people they serve, and I don’t think anybody in Tennessee, even people who won’t vote for me, would accuse me of that.”
Conservative groups aren’t helping Carr, either. According to figures from Open Secrets, only $256,000 in outside money has been spent against Alexander this cycle. Some of the bigger outside groups that often spend money in primaries declined to endorse Carr. Senate Conservatives Fund, for example, spent $45,900 on a radio ad attacking Alexander in August of 2013, but they have not endorsed any of his challengers, and have not spent money on the race since.
Carr is counting on a late surge of momentum, which he told CQ Roll Call is “clearly in our favor.”
Both campaigns said they hope the race will look just like June 10 primary — but different contests. The Carr campaign is referring to Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to the virtually unknown and underfunded Dave Brat. Alexander’s camp looks to mirror Sen. Lindsey Graham’s easy coast to victory.
Carr, like Brat, has made his opposition to immigration overhaul the centerpiece of his campaign. He has the support of conservative talking heads Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, who helped boost Brat’s campaign. Ingraham came to Tennessee to hold a rally for Carr last week.
Also like Brat, Carr has very little money: He had just $169,000 to spend as of July 18, according to a report filed with the Federal Exchange Commission. Alexander was sitting on $2.2 million.
“The number one issues is the crisis on our southern border,” Carr told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview Wednesday. “And that is absolutely the number one issue.”
Carr attacks Alexander for voting for “amnesty,” the derisive term used by opponents of the immigration overhaul bill that passed the Senate last year. Alexander was one of 14 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill last year.
The challenger accuses Alexander of straying from the ideals proclaimed in the Republican Party platform.
“He says one thing, and he does another,” Carr said of Alexander.
He added: “There is no evidence in anyway from his voting record to suggest he’s a conservative.”
Alexander, who did not once mention Carr’s name during the 20-minute interview, said that the topic immigration “comes up more now,” but said it was not the top issue. “I’ve heard more about Obamacare, jobs, debt, and schools,” he said.
But as Carr supporters try to boost his momentum heading into election day, Alexander is shoring up his conservative credentials on the subject. Alexander made a last minute Wednesday trip back to Capitol Hill to take two votes, one of which was against a bill to provide emergency funding to deal with the huge numbers of children illegally crossing the border into the United States.
Alexander had planned to stay in Tennessee and continue his bus tour around the state. But, he wrote on his Little Plaid Blog, which chronicles the trip, the funding plan was not “serious.” He also said he was back to vote for legislation that would overhaul the VA.
The race is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.