How Lamar Alexander Kept His Most Dangerous Opponents From Running

A number of Republicans could have given Alexander a tougher time in the Tennessee primary. But he and other incumbents have effectively used their power to ward off such challenges.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol October 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. On the 11th day of a U.S. Government shutdown, President Barack Obama spoke with Speaker Boehner on the phone and they agreed that they should keep talking.
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Andrea Drusch
Aug. 7, 2014, 1 a.m.

Monty Lank­ford has been a cham­pi­on of con­ser­vat­ive polit­ics in Ten­ness­ee for years. He served as the state fin­ance dir­ect­or for Newt Gin­grich’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and he knows how to raise money — more than $3.5 mil­lion for Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates over the years. But when con­ser­vat­ives ap­proached Lank­ford to run against Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, one of the more mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans in the up­per cham­ber, Lank­ford even­tu­ally said he wasn’t in­ter­ested. And neither were most of his fel­low con­ser­vat­ives.

By many stand­ards, Al­ex­an­der is the type of in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an that tea-party groups love to hate. He’s been a polit­ic­al fix­ture for the bet­ter part of four dec­ades, and he reg­u­larly works across the aisle. Most sin­ful of all, Al­ex­an­der voted for the Sen­ate’s bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion bill in 2013. He eas­ily could have faced a primary race with some real money be­hind it, like we saw in Kan­sas earli­er this week, but he hasn’t. His main chal­lengers are a guy loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans big-footed out of run­ning for the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, state Rep. Joe Carr; and a late-en­ter­ing doc­tor who is polling at less than 5 per­cent, George Flinn — an­oth­er failed House can­did­ate.

To hear Al­ex­an­der’s cam­paign tell it, his smooth-sail­ing primary po­s­i­tion (even tea-party act­iv­ists con­cede he will al­most cer­tainly win) re­flects the sen­at­or’s in­tra­party ap­peal, com­bined with a dip­lo­mat­ic ap­proach to win­ning over po­ten­tial op­pon­ents. And to some ex­tent, they’re right. Al­ex­an­der con­vinced the en­tire Ten­ness­ee del­eg­a­tion, ex­cept scan­dal-troubled Rep. Scott Des­Jar­lais, to not only stay out of the race, but also to join his cam­paign as co-chairs.

But Al­ex­an­der’s lack of a cred­ible chal­lenger also un­der­scores one of the tea party’s biggest short­com­ings across the Sen­ate map this cycle: They’re hav­ing trouble con­vin­cing good can­did­ates to run.

“People need to un­der­stand how hard it is to re­cruit,” said Daniel Horow­itz, a con­ser­vat­ive con­sult­ant formerly with the Madis­on Pro­ject, which has not en­dorsed either of Al­ex­an­der’s chal­lengers. “I’ve seen polling that had Trey Gowdy crush­ing Lind­sey Gra­ham straight up in a head to head … but to get a guy who’s im­press­ive enough, has the abil­ity to raise money, is smart on the is­sues, shares our val­ues, and is will­ing to put his neck out, is a huge brain drain. By vir­tue of be­ing a prom­in­ent pro­spect, you’re not go­ing to want to des­troy your­self.”

The fact is, polit­ic­al in­sti­tu­tions like Al­ex­an­der and Gra­ham wield a lot of power in their states — not just with­in their con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion but on down to state-level politi­cians, loc­al party chairs, may­ors, and fun­draisers.

When loc­al tea-party lead­ers ap­proached Freedom­Works about find­ing po­ten­tial can­did­ates nearly a year or more ahead of this elec­tion, they had a list of well-qual­i­fied people out­side of the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion. Among those con­sidered were Nashville law­yer and Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund fa­vor­ite Kev­in Kooko­gey, Knox County May­or Tim Burchett, and wrest­ler Glenn Jac­obs. Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans men­tioned state Sen. Mark Green, state House Speak­er Beth Har­well, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ram­sey as po­ten­tial chal­lengers to Al­ex­an­der.

One by one they all de­clined, and many ac­tu­ally went on to as­sist Al­ex­an­der’s cam­paign.

For Lank­ford, the de­cision to sit the race out was one of the hard­est he’d ever made. He has long dreamed of go­ing to D.C. (he lost a con­gres­sion­al bid against former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Lin­coln Dav­is in 2008) and even called him­self an un­of­fi­cial can­did­ate for this race at one point.

“I got calls just about every day from someone say­ing, ‘Please run against Lamar,’ ” Lank­ford said. “But fi­nally I de­cided it wasn’t about me, and my time is bet­ter spent turn­ing blue seats red.”

The change of heart baffled the con­ser­vat­ives court­ing him.

Lank­ford in­sists Al­ex­an­der didn’t pres­sure him not to run but says the sen­at­or did reach out im­me­di­ately after he made the de­cision. Lank­ford says Al­ex­an­der thanked him per­son­ally and offered to help him in any ca­pa­city go­ing for­ward.

Like most of the folks on the list, Lank­ford has long-term polit­ic­al as­pir­a­tions, and Al­ex­an­der’s fu­ture sup­port will go a long way even if the two don’t al­ways see eye to eye.

For oth­ers, the dir­ect­ive from Al­ex­an­der was more firm. Flinn, who re­mains on the bal­lot, says Al­ex­an­der and his al­lies act­ively pres­sured him to stay out of the race.

“They said, ‘I guar­an­tee you he’ll ru­in you in the Re­pub­lic­an Party,’ ” Flinn said of the calls.

Nashville Tea Party Pres­id­ent Ben Cun­ning­ham de­scribed Al­ex­an­der’s de­fense strategy as tire­less and ag­gress­ive but said he was run­ning an ag­gress­ive cam­paign him­self. Cun­ning­ham and his col­leagues had been out speak­ing with Sen. Ted Cruz’s sup­port­ers to learn best prac­tices for tak­ing on the in­cum­bent.

He said the sen­at­or sat down with him for the first time ever fol­low­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view Cun­ning­ham gave about po­ten­tial chal­lengers. The sen­at­or seemed to be do­ing op­pos­i­tion re­search, he said.

“Lamar tried to talk to every­one,” Cun­ning­ham said. “He’d try to con­vince them they wouldn’t have a chance against him.”

When the dust settled after the lengthy re­cruit­ment pro­cess, just Carr and Flinn re­mained ser­i­ous chal­lengers in the race, and con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups were less than thrilled with their op­tions. Though some, like the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots, even­tu­ally ral­lied around Carr, en­dorse­ments were late in com­ing and brought little fin­an­cial sup­port. Even more telling: A large tea-party gath­er­ing in June brought Sarah Pal­in and Rick San­tor­um to the state, but neither en­dorsed or cam­paigned for either of Al­ex­an­der’s chal­lengers.

Pal­in later en­dorsed Carr on Face­book, but the de­cision to have a can­did­ate-free rally high­lights the lack of a tea-party bench for such a chal­lenge. Steve Os­born, the chair­man of the Sevi­er Coun­try Tea Party, which planned the event, is back­ing Carr, but he said the rally was purely in­ten­ded to build mo­mentum in the state’s con­ser­vat­ive move­ment.


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