TIME 2014 Election

Meet The Tea Party’s Next Target

Lamar Alexander, Rand Paul
U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., confer after a press conference in Nashville, Tenn., on June 30, 2014. Erik Schelzigā€”AP

Conservatives have their sights set on Lamar Alexander, but he'll be tough to beat

For an unknown candidate, political campaigns are not glamorous. “I’m sick, tired, hungry and broke,” jokes Joe Carr, a Republican Senate candidate in Tennessee. For a year, Carr has been traveling up to 2,000 miles a week, crisscrossing the state to pitch sleepy crowds, slogging along in a quixotic bid to unseat a powerful incumbent. The polls weren’t budging. The money wasn’t coming in.

But Carr was convinced his primary challenge to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander was primed to catch fire. The spark may have finally come last month, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was bounced in a GOP primary by an unknown challenger named Dave Brat. The black swan upset buoyed Carr’s campaign, opening a fresh spigot of cash and prompting comparisons to the Virginia economics professor who was written off by everyone until he toppled Cantor. A poll highlighted in conservative media on Monday showed Alexander’s lead shrinking to just seven points after series of other surveys showed Alexander with a comfortable lead.

Now Carr, a little-known state representative and businessman, says he has a real shot on Aug. 7 to oust Alexander, the courtly senior U.S. senator and a Tennessee institution for the past four decades. “I think it’s very much a 50-50 proposition,” Carr told TIME in a phone interview Tuesday as he traveled to a campaign event in Cleveland, Tenn. As for the comparisons to Brat, he adds, “there are common threads.”

Indeed there are, beginning with the obstacles. Both were unknown challengers summarily ignored by not only the national media but also national Tea Party groups. Both were massive underdogs against well-known figures with huge campaign war chests.

Like Brat, Carr gathered steam slowly. He won the endorsements of some local Tea Party groups, then gained favor with conservative talk-show hosts. Both hammered the incumbent for supporting “amnesty,” an issue with special resonance as the migrant crisis on the southern border escalates. Both caught the attention of Laura Ingraham, the conservative pundit who campaigned for Brat and endorsed Carr on July 14.

Now the dominoes are falling into place for a legitimate challenge, Carr’s allies say. Ingraham will visit Nashville to rally support for Carr next week. “I’m all in for Joe Carr,” she said on her radio show. “He’s no-nonsense, a citizen legislator.” The Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund gave an endorsement. A local Super PAC chipped in with a six-figure TV ad buy. Carr has a growing ground network, and the yawning gap in the polls is beginning to shrink. “Things are happening at exactly the right time,” said a Carr campaign consultant.

So can Carr spring the upset?

It still looks like a long shot. Alexander has a lead in the polls, a massive cash advantage and a savvy campaign that is courting conservatives by accentuating his role in opposing the Affordable Care Act.

A former governor and president of the state’s flagship university, he has succumbed to none of the usual traps of incumbency. While he never mentions Carr’s name, Alexander has campaigned like a man at risk, unlike former his colleague Richard Lugar, who lost a 2012 primary in Indiana. He is a ubiquitous presence in Tennessee, thwarting the gripes about absentee representation that soured the base on Cantor. Another Tea Party candidate may also cut into Carr’s support. Throw in the fact that Tennessee’s primary is an open contest that permits crossover voting, and Alexander (whose campaign did not respond to an interview request) just doesn’t look much like a vulnerable candidate.

“He’s covering all his bases,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who conducted polling on the race. “He shows no serious weaknesses.”

Then there is the matter of the challenger himself. While Brat’s smooth rhetoric helped him spring an upset, Carr’s candidacy has some rough edges. According to the Memphis Flyer, Carr voiced some support for former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s disastrous comments about rape and pregnancy. Before deciding to challenge Alexander, Carr bailed on a race against Rep. Scott DesJarlais, the embattled Tennessee Republican who opposes abortion except when when it comes to his mistress. And when Carr announced his candidacy last summer, the banner ad on his website urged voters to support “Carr for U.S. Sentate” [sic].

Which is why Alexander may be less Eric Cantor than Lindsey Graham, another southern Senator whose bouts of bipartisanship make him a target for disaffected conservatives. Graham helped author the Gang of Eight immigration overhaul that Alexander is now catching flak for supporting. And while the Tea Party painted a bulls-eye on his back, Graham went out and pasted his six primary opponents by 40 points.

That’s how it normally goes for Senate incumbents, who won re-election last cycle at a 91% clip. Beating Alexander will be hard. But Carr is convinced he can do it. “We’ve got a great chance to win,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if Joe Carr is the Republican nominee on Aug. 8.”

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