A Tired Tea Party Turns Focus to Tennessee

After exerting so much energy on a failed effort to beat Cochran, conservative groups belatedly back Joe Carr’s bid against the popular Lamar Alexander.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) rides on the Senate Subway at the US Capitol, on December 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate worked through the night debating U.S. President Barack Obama's Circuit Court nominations. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
July 14, 2014, 5:53 p.m.

Ask Joe Carr, the tea party’s favored can­did­ate for the Sen­ate in Ten­ness­ee, and he’ll tell you he’s on a roll.

“Our mo­mentum really launched when Chris McDaniel won his primary,” Carr said con­fid­ently of his primary cam­paign against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der. “Then when Dav­id Brat won, our sup­port ex­ploded.”

Two prob­lems with that. Not only did Chris McDaniel not ac­tu­ally win his primary—he lost the run­off to Sen. Thad Co­chran in Mis­sis­sippi after fin­ish­ing first in the ini­tial race—but some of the out­side groups whose sup­port Carr hopes to get sound ex­hausted after the tough slog in the Deep South.

Cer­tainly, Brat showed in his up­set win over House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor in Vir­gin­ia that out­side sup­port isn’t the end-all, be-all of in­sur­gent primary cam­paigns. Brat be­nefited greatly from some name-only en­dorse­ments, the kind that Carr is pick­ing up now. That in­cludes con­ser­vat­ive ra­dio host Laura In­gra­ham.

But Carr, who is chal­len­ging a long­time sen­at­or and former gov­ernor, is mostly go­ing it alone. So far, just one Nashville-based su­per PAC, Cit­izens for Eth­ics in Gov­ern­ment, has gone up with TV ads on his be­half, and cer­tainly none of Al­ex­an­der’s ads have ac­know­ledged him, as Can­tor’s did for Brat.

“We fully in­ten­ded to be act­ive in [the Ten­ness­ee] race three weeks earli­er than we are now,” said Kev­in Broughton, the com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots Cit­izens Fund. “But we had a little Sen­ate race go­ing on in Mis­sis­sippi,” he said. Broughton, who was still in Mis­sis­sippi more than two weeks after the run­off, said the group was as­sess­ing what re­sources it could put in­to Ten­ness­ee after drop­ping more than $1 mil­lion in­to Mis­sis­sippi.

Carr has twice been to D.C. this year, court­ing out­side groups, and he’s had con­ver­sa­tions with folks whom he deemed very in­ter­ested. But many of them have con­ceded that the pro­trac­ted cam­paign in Mis­sis­sippi robbed them of the re­sources they needed to fully en­gage in oth­er Sen­ate primar­ies, such as the one in Ok­lahoma last month.

“I’ve been told on two sep­ar­ate oc­ca­sions that there was a day on the cal­en­dar to watch, earli­er in the sum­mer and also in the spring, where out­side sup­port would come; those days have come and gone,” said one Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an who is un­af­fili­ated in the race.

Re­gard­less of wheth­er the groups spend any money, the lack of name en­dorse­ments has hurt Carr’s cam­paign. Re­pub­lic­ans in the state, many of whom have strong ties to Al­ex­an­der, have been able to point to that si­lence as an in­dic­a­tion of Al­ex­an­der’s in­tra-party ap­peal.

Carr cer­tainly fits the mold of oth­er con­ser­vat­ive darlings en­dorsed by tea-party-style groups this cycle. He’s loud and pas­sion­ate and touts a state­house re­cord, in­clud­ing sup­port­ing deeply con­ser­vat­ive im­mig­ra­tion meas­ures. His chief ar­gu­ment against Al­ex­an­der is a timely one: Carr is run­ning ads that tie the sen­at­or to his vote for “am­nesty” in the form of last year’s Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion bill.

Carr still pas­sion­ately de­fends his abil­ity to win without the out­side groups, but the threat that once had Al­ex­an­der’s camp look­ing over its shoulders has now all but faded away.

Asked why Carr’s race had been re­leg­ated so far be­low McDaniel’s, Broughton could only point to the cal­en­dar. “And we like to fin­ish what we start,” he ad­ded.

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