LAFOLLETTE, Tenn. - The crowd of well-wishers swarms around Sen. Lamar Alexander as soon as he walks through the door.
“I haven’t seen you in a hundred years!” he says, pumping the hand of a grey-haired man in a navy suit.
For the next half-hour, the senator works the room like the seasoned politician he is. There’s lots of handshaking, lots of small talk, lots of patiently posing for cellphone photos and, no doubt, lots of thinking in the room about what a difficult year this has been for entrenched incumbents like Alexander.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor suffered a stunning loss in Virginia, and Sen. Thad Cochran had a scare in Mississippi. And those two races have invigorated tea party groups, who are now gunning for Alexander.
When he finally takes the microphone at the Campbell County Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner, where the main speaker will be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Alexander jokes that he’s like a warm-up act at the Grand Ole Opry. But when he segues to the matter on everyone’s mind – this fall’s elections and, specifically, his own bid for a third Senate term – the warm-up artist disappears and the skilled campaigner is suddenly center stage.
“We have an election coming up this November in which we have a chance to have a (Senate) Republican majority,” Alexander says, looking beyond Tennessee’s Aug. 7 primary and casting his race as a piece of a larger political puzzle.
“I’d like to be a part of that majority and get our country moving in a more conservative direction,” he continues, making his case for re-election. Then, the big pitch: “If we do our job,” he adds, “then we will have a chance to finish the job and elect a Republican president of the United States two years later.”
Alexander’s lengthy political resume – 12 years as a senator, eight years as governor, two years as U.S. education secretary, two-time presidential candidate – is paradoxically his strongest selling point and perhaps his biggest liability as he tries to persuade voters to send him back to Washington for another six years.
State Rep. Joe Carr, 56, the most formidable of Alexander’s six Republican primary challengers, has pummeled him relentlessly, arguing the deal-making senator is out of touch and isn’t conservative enough for Tennessee votes.
Alexander’s response to Carr’s attacks has been to basically ignore him. He never mentions Carr by name on the campaign trail or in conversations with reporters. He has refused Carr’s calls for a debate, saying at this point in the campaign – early voting started Friday – that putting all seven candidates on a stage and letting them go at each other would not be of much use to voters.
Alexander, 74, certainly doesn’t act like a man who’s worried that his days in office might soon be over.
“By all measures, things seem to be in pretty good shape,” the senator said, sizing up his campaign over lunch at Nashville’s Midtown Café, just steps from Music Row.
Alexander has good reason to be confident. Polls show him leading Carr and his other Republican challengers. He enters the final stretch of the campaign with more than $3 million in the bank, while Carr has just under $500,000. What’s more, his decades in Tennessee politics have made him a household name across the state, while Carr remains an unknown figure to many voters, particularly in east Tennessee.
Carr has only partially succeeded in his early goal of establishing himself as the single conservative, tea party challenger to Alexander. He’s won the backing of several Tennessee-based tea party groups and at least one national group, the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which was active in the failed effort to defeat Cochran. It’s unclear whether the group has enough money left to help Carr substantially.
Neither Sarah Palin nor Rick Santorum endorsed Carr at a tea party rally in east Tennessee last month, but nationally syndicated conservative radio commentator Laura Ingraham announced she’s “all in” for Carr.
While he may be favored, Alexander says he’s taking nothing for granted. “I respect the voters in Tennessee, and they have a right to make their own minds up,” he said. “I’m out trying re-earn their confidence and doing it the way I’ve always done it.”
One decision that continues to dog Alexander has been his vote for an immigration bill that passed the Senate last year and would give people already in the country illegally a chance to obtain citizenship. Carr has hammered Alexander for voting for the bill and accuses him of supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
“Immigration, immigration and immigration — and I think no other issue contrasts Sen. Alexander more than that,” Carr replied last week when asked what the major issue in the primary is. “And since Lamar has capitulated to the president on the issue, you’re going to see that issue as front and center in this campaign because it doesn’t just reflect how the senator and I differ on this issue but it reflects generally our approach to how we believe we should be representing Tennesseans.”
Alexander counters that “it was the right vote to take,” and adds, “I think Tennesseans sent me to Washington to solve problems, not to make speeches. One of the biggest problems we have is the immigration mess, and the only people who can solve it are the president and the Congress.”
Alexander said his vote for the immigration bill actually was a vote to end amnesty. The legislation, if enacted, would double security on the border and put in place a 13-year process allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship, but only after paying a fine and back taxes and meeting other requirements.
Doing nothing, on the other hand, would amount to “perpetual” amnesty, Alexander said, because the 11 million immigrants already here illegally would be allowed to stay “without consequence.”
Alexander also has fought back against Carr’s claims that he isn’t conservative by winning the endorsement of two high-profile conservatives – Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich’s endorsement of Alexander was especially noteworthy, given that Carr was a Gingrich delegate during the 2012 presidential election. “Lamar Alexander is better for Tennessee and better for America,” Gingrich said when he announced the endorsement in June.
In his speech at the Campbell County dinner, Huckabee said Alexander has never abandoned his conservative principles. In a brief interview afterward, he suggested that critics of Alexander’s vote on immigration should look at his overall record, which he said has been consistently conservative.
“He’s a person who understands not only how to govern, but he knows that’s what he was sent there to do,” Huckabee said.
Alexander, too, argues that his long record of public service has made him a better senator and will continue to be an asset if he’s returned to office.
“It’s helpful to have a governor’s perspective in the United States Senate,” he said, “particularly if we have a Republican majority.”
Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Richard Locker contributed to this story.
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