One name is ubiquitous at a July 22 rally for Republican Senate candidate Joe Carr, and it isn’t Joe Carr’s. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee senator Carr hopes to defeat in the August 7 primary, practically greets you the moment you turn into the parking lot at the Millennium Maxwell House hotel. Signs and posters line the driveway and the hallway into the ballroom, reading in big letters: “Beat Lamar.” The phrase also adorns stickers, buttons, even the name-tags for those of us in the press covering the event.
The rally’s special guest is focused like a laser on Alexander, too. Radio host Laura Ingraham, whose appearance has made this the biggest day yet in Joe Carr’s Senate campaign, barely mentions Carr until halfway through her speech. Before that, she lays into Alexander for a solid 27 minutes, mocking the senator for a campaign ad last year that touted his Freedom to Fish Act allowing Tennesseans to fish below the state’s federally administered dams. She feigns admiration for the senator’s work on the law, saying it’s put her in an angling mood.
“I am here in Tennessee to hook a big one,” Ingraham declares, as the 700 or so people in the ballroom cheer and whoop and holler and leap to their feet.
Ingraham isn’t exaggerating: The 74-year-old Alexander is a political institution in the Volunteer State. During his first successful run for governor in 1978, he walked more than 1,000 miles across the long state, from the northeast corner in the Appalachian Mountains to the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis, wearing a red-and-black plaid shirt that’s become as legendary as the man himself.
After serving two terms as governor and then as President George H. W. Bush’s secretary of education, Alexander mounted two failed presidential campaigns before returning to office with a victorious Senate run in 2002. He was virtually unchallenged in his 2008 GOP primary and cruised to victory with 65 percent of the vote, winning every county in the state but one. To allies, he’s a thoughtful conservative, but to opponents like Carr, he’s a squishy moderate.
Alexander appears to have the strength necessary to win again in 2014, though he stresses, “I take nothing for granted.” Nearly every Republican in Tennessee’s congressional delegation has endorsed him, along with most statewide elected officials. Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich are supporting Alexander, as are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. No serious Democratic candidate, meanwhile, even considered jumping in the race. And unlike past victims of GOP primary challengers, such as Dick Lugar, Alexander is frequently back home in Nashville. So why is Joe Carr, a 56-year-old three-term state representative, taking on Mr. Tennessee?
“Too much time is spent calculating whether or not you can win or lose before you determine whether or not it’s worthwhile,” Carr tells me, before the rally in Nashville. “We knew we were the underdog. We understand that. We also understand that for a lot of Republicans and conservatives, Senator Lamar Alexander has lost his way for a very long time.”
If such a sentiment exists, some numbers might help explain it. Alexander’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating is 76 out of 100, with a 60 rating for the 2013 legislative year. Heritage Action’s scorecard gives Alexander a dismal 49 percent. But for Carr, Ingraham, and the rest of the “Beat Lamar” crowd, Alexander’s worst betrayal is on immigration. In June 2013, he was one of 14 Republicans in the Senate to vote for the comprehensive immigration reform bill drafted by the bipartisan “Gang of 8.” Alexander notes he cosponsored an amendment with fellow Tennessee Republican Bob Corker to beef up border security as part of the package. Border hawks like Jeff Sessions of Alabama argued the bill’s enforcement measures were toothless, a stalking horse for amnesty for illegal immigrants inside the country. Alexander disagrees.
“I voted to end amnesty,” he says. “By doing nothing, you perpetuate amnesty for 11 million people who are here illegally. I voted to double border security, end amnesty for those 11 million people, and create a legal immigration system.”
Tennessee is a conservative state, but there was some indication its residents might have supported Alexander’s vote. In a June 2013 poll sponsored by a pro-immigration-reform organization, 63 percent of respondents from Tennessee said they approved a description of the Gang of 8’s proposed legislation.
Nevertheless, Carr says Alexander’s vote for the reform bill is out of step with the views of most Tennessee voters and an example of how the senator “capitulated” to the Chamber of Commerce. “When both senators are promoting an alternative other than securing the border and the rule of law and advocating for the American worker, vis-à-vis amnesty, then it gives you a distorted picture about what Tennesseans really want,” Carr says. On August 20, 2013, Carr formally entered the primary against Alexander, with the senator’s immigration reform vote chief among his complaints.
Unfortunately for Carr’s nascent Senate campaign, the immigration debate died down soon after. Conservative opposition to the Senate bill stalled passage of an immigration bill in the House. Meanwhile, as the 2014 primary season rolled along, Republican candidates backed by the Chamber of Commerce and other “establishment” groups were mostly winning. There was a growing body of evidence that it wasn’t necessarily toxic for a Republican to have ties to the Gang of 8 bill or its principles on immigration.
Everything changed on June 10, when House majority leader Eric Cantor lost a stunning primary battle in Virginia against a local college professor named Dave Brat. Brat campaigned arguing that Cantor and the House GOP leadership wanted to pass comprehensive immigration reform similar to the Senate bill before the 2014 midterm elections. It was a message that prompted Laura Ingraham to campaign for Brat, even while several national Tea Party groups ignored the race.
Suddenly, the politics of immigration reform looked to be swinging in the direction of the enforcement hawks and economic populists. Just days after Cantor’s defeat, one Capitol Hill Republican aide told me Carr was the “next Dave Brat.” The growing crisis at the southern border, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America streaming into Texas from Mexico, further pushed illegal immigration into the forefront. A July 16 Gallup poll found a plurality of Americans thought the issue of immigration and illegal aliens was the most important problem facing the country, followed closely by dissatisfaction with elected officials. On July 22, Georgia Republican primary voters picked newcomer David Perdue over longtime congressman and Chamber-endorsed Jack Kingston in that state’s Senate runoff. Perdue had closed the gap against Kingston in part by emphasizing his opponent’s association with the pro-“amnesty” Chamber. It’s a trend, some say, working in Joe Carr’s favor.
“There’s an economic populist movement afoot that’s tired of electing the same people,” says Ingraham. “One does get the feeling that the old way of establishment Republican politics is not bringing in anybody new to the party.”
Carr senses a transformation, too, within the party and in Tennessee. “Lamar hasn’t changed. I think the state has become more conservative,” he says.
Or is that wishful thinking? Alexander, the big fish, reckons so. “I think Tennesseans don’t just want a conservative senator who can make a speech,” he says. “They want a conservative senator who knows how to govern.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.