Tea Party aims to recreate Cantor-style upset in Tennessee

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) (L) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (C) walk to a closed-door briefing on talks with Iran by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew at the U.S. Credit: Reuters
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) (L) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (C) walk to a closed-door briefing on talks with Iran by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew at the U.S.
Credit: Reuters

The shock defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary in Virginia this week has fueled hopes among Tea Party activists in Tennessee that they can stage a similar upset against Senator Lamar Alexander in August.

But the Cantor loss, while enough to shake Washington and the Republican establishment, may not be a sign of things to come as the Tea Party movement has yet to show this year it can find a consistent winning formula against Republican incumbents.

In Tennessee, Alexander’s challenger – Tea Party state representative Joe Carr – is regarded by many political experts as unqualified for a Senate race and he is trailing by up to 40 points in the polls. He is also up against a lawmaker who is well prepared and a statewide Republican Party that is pushing to thwart the Tea Party.

“It’s important not to rule out an upset after Cantor’s upset,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But so far there’s not much indication that the challenge against Alexander has gained much traction.”

Often fractured and lacking in resources, the Tea Party is finding it difficult to prosper in races for the U.S. Senate, where the fight for control of Congress will be decided.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina have both seen off challenges this year. Tennessee’s Alexander knew he too could be vulnerable. So, like them, the two-term senator moved early to fend off a challenge, marshalling Tennessee’s leading Republicans behind him, raising $5.3 million and campaigning actively in the state.

By contrast, Cantor’s loss has been widely seen as a result of  his over-confidence, neglect of his district and voter anger at someone who had a pivotal leadership role in a gridlocked Congress.

“Lamar Alexander has taken the threat of a primary challenger seriously right from the start,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “He knew he had a target on his back.”


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