NASHVILLE - While U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., runs for re-election as a problem-solving conservative interested in "getting results," his GOP primary opponent, Joe Carr, claims he's gotten Alexander to follow his lead on some issues dear to tea party voters.
Carr, a state representative with what so far is an underfunded and underdog campaign, points to recent public stances ranging from calling on U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to resign to urging Alexander to co-sponsor legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks.
Carr claims that when President Barack Obama proposed military action in Syria, his own opposition prompted Alexander to "veer right" and oppose it. And Carr says Alexander followed his lead on a plan to reopen the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the government shutdown.
"I think it's interesting that on these four issues it took a press release from our campaign to get him off the fence," Carr said last week.
"I think it would be easier to respond to the values and the principles of the voters if I was the next United States senator rather than try to convince the current U.S. senator by press release to do the same," he added.
Alexander, running for a third Senate term, fired back in an interview Friday with Times Free Press editors and reporters.
"I don't think I read his press releases," he said. "I make my decisions as the issues are presented to me and I try to do it consistent with what I believe."
Regarding his signing onto the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," Alexander said, "Well, I've always done that. I've been pro-life. I've always earned the majority of female voters as well as male voters. Pro-life is not new to me. But I'm also passing the 'PREEMIE Bill."
Alexander, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, co-sponsored the bill aimed at expanding research, education and intervention activities related to premature births. The bill now goes to the president.
Carr, who switched from the 4th Congressional District's GOP primary to the Senate challenge, raised just $52,000 in the third quarter. He's hoping to raise $2 million to $3 million to attract multimillion-dollar independent expenditures from national tea party groups to make it a race.
Alexander has $2.8 million in cash on hand and is in position to raise millions more. He said his own polling makes him feel comfortable about his chances. He touts his conservative pragmatism and has taken issue with tea party causes, such as the effort to defund the Affordable Care act that led to the partial government shutdown.
A Washington Post article recently said Alexander's willingness to confront the tea party makes the Senate primary campaign "one of the most important bellwether races in the country."
Alexander, a former governor, U.S. education secretary and two-time presidential candidate, told the Times Free Press "it shouldn't be any surprise to any Tennessean that I can work with Democrats as well as Republicans to get results. ... I learned to count in Maryville city schools and when you work in the United States Senate and you have 45 Republicans and it takes 60 [votes] to get a result, that's how you do it."
That's helped Alexander pass bills such as one regulating compounding pharmacies after contaminated medications injected to relieve severe back pain resulted in 16 Tennesseans dying and others being sickened by meningitis, he said.
While governor from 1979 to 1987, Alexander noted, he had to work with a Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"That's how we got the auto industry and a top four-lane highway system," Alexander said. "That's how we became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well, because I was a Republican governor working with Democratic legislators. So I'm a conservative that believes part of my job is getting results.
"And," he added, "I believe most Tennesseans and most Republicans expect me to do that."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.