Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 14, 2016

How Lamar Alexander Staved Off His Primary Challenger

Alexander faces a primary on Aug. 7. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Related Stories:

Lamar Alexander Still Up Big in Internal Primary Poll

Scott DesJarlais’ Re-Election Hopes Rise, Despite Abortion Scandal (Video)

In Kansas, Conservatives Suffer From Mississippi Hangover

6 Reasons Senate Republicans Should Be Optimistic — and Concerned About Election Day

Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat

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  • KWHodges56

    We are not even out of the “Early Voting” stages of the primaries yet and already Alexis Levinson is proclaiming Lamar to be the winner. Do you have some sort of privy information that the rest of us should have? Have the facts and numbers to back up your claim? I really don’t see Lamar surviving the August 7th Primary.

  • Mita

    Yeah, voting isn’t over… so don’t call the election yet.

  • Mita

    Remember when Lamar published his little plaid book and promised to serve two terms and then get out? Yeah. Remember that? I do. I guess DC really DOES change a person and promises start getting broken.

  • Pete

    The article itself may not be premature, but the headline definitely is. For Roll Call’s sake, Lamar! had better win.

    An independent poll (i.e., not from Lamar’s campaign) today has Lamar! only up 41-29.

  • Sassy Serf

    I thought the answer to the question of how he did it would be by LYING.

  • Lori Servies

    I am sick and tired of the media (MSM) and moderate/liberal internet news sites telling us who to vote for or who has already won! I know its a tough race but I really think Carr has a shot. When you run articles like this it makes voters feel like ‘what’s the use!’

  • KC614

    Premature Prognostication. I hope he loses his ass. He’s been worthless the last 6 years.

  • Jim Boyd
  • bpai99

    Please post again after the primary and explain why you were so wrong (just kidding, I realize you are a troll working for the Carr campaign).

    That one will be called by all major networks for Alexander the minute the polls close.

  • bpai99

    “Only” up 41-29?

  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Tom Smith

    I highly doubt Alexander has that big of a lead..
    He’s putting out phony poll numbers to discourage supporters of his opponents
    from coming out to vote.

  • KWHodges56

    It is showing Carr ahead with 92% of the vote…

  • Larenzo1

    Why is the man a troll because he supports Carr? I supported Alexander since he first won election for Governor and had to be sworn in early because of a corrupt sitting democrat. I also supported him against other corrupt democrats the Butchers. The fact is though Alexander has supported amnesty and only recently got religion concerning his amnesty support. He flipped like a gymnast. No as much as I like Lamar I have to vote Carr.

  • bpai99

    Tpe reason I said that poster is a Carr troll is because no one could be so divorced from reality as to be certain Alexander won’t survive the upcoming primary. The only conceivable reason (other than being an idiot, which I don’t think that poster is) would be that you are being paid to make such a statement.

  • Benjamin Livengood

    I suggest you share. I’m trying to beat Lamar’s internet poll of 1000 people. Carr has fallen behind. So please share and ask people to vote for Carr!

  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Benjamin Livengood
  • Doug Bonds

    I say we HELP Lamar keep his promise of only 2 terms!!!!
    vote Carr; not Lamar
    I did!!!

  • VALman

    Power. It’s the power. Worse than heroin or cocaine. First, it comes in small ways. Then, if one is a good boy, it increases. After awhile, the reasons one came to the office takes a back seat to, yes you guessed it, power. Of course they tell themselves and us that they want the power to serve us and the country. Power. It can corrupt even the best of them.

  • Verdigo

    I think the primary is being called a bit early. I have never voted Democrat in my life but if Lamar pulls a Mississippi I will definitely vote Democrat in the general election. Lamar needs to be punished for his non representation of those who put him in office.

  • Jonathan Kendrick

    Despite collectivism’s repeated failures, collectivists stubbornly maintain that centralized government planning must be used to control people in the name of improving “society”.

  • Santiago Alemedia

    Lamar is the true DC insider. He’s so wrapped up in being part of the political establishment that he does not even know what’s going on in Tennessee anymore. Just this week a report by CIS showed that most of the new jobs created there have gone to illegal and legal immigrants. Meanwhile, citizens of Tennessee remain jobless. Immigration is a big deal for them.

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