NASHVILLE - Two would-be challengers to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander told tea party activists Saturday they each would step aside for the other if he proved to be the GOP right's stronger candidate in Republicans' 2014 Senate primary.
State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and former Williamson County GOP chairman Kevin Kookogey made the comments as tea party groups kicked off a series of forums aimed at generating a credible challenger to Alexander.
"It's absolutely critical and crucial, if we're going to remove Lamar Alexander as the liberal senator from Tennessee, that we all have to coalesce around some candidate," Carr, an announced candidate, told the crowd of at least 250 activists meeting in a hotel. "I think I've already told you I've committed to that. It's that important."
Kookogey, who hasn't officially announced he's a candidate, told the group, "The target is Lamar. The target is not Kevin Kookogey."
Kookogey said if he gets in the race and Carr takes the lead in polls and fundraising before next year's August primary, "then absolutely I would step aside."
Both men also said that if they dropped out, they would be willing to use money they'd raised to help another challenger -- Carr adding that he'd have to make sure it was OK with his donors first. Carr had raised about $300,000 to run in the state's 4th Congressional District but declared for the Senate two weeks ago.
Tea party activists say they are on a hunt for a "Ted Cruz of Tennessee" to take on Alexander, a former governor and one-time U.S. Education secretary who is seeking a third Senate term with backing from Gov. Bill Haslam and most of the GOP's top political establishment.
Saturday's event was the first of five planned across the state. It was sponsored by the Nashville Tea Party, a group known as Beat Lamar and a coalition of some 60 other conservative groups. A similar forum is scheduled on Chattanooga on Sept. 14, hosted by Beat Lamar and the Chattanooga Tea Party.
Missing from Saturday's forum was Brenda Lenard, an announced candidate from Knoxville who came in fourth two years ago in Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's primary. Also absent was Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who is weighing a race but said he would not be able to attend because of mayoral business.
Sometime in late September or October, tea party groups want to coalesce behind a single candidate. Each forum features a straw poll but organizers say results won't be released until all events are complete.
Alexander defends his record, citing top marks on votes scored by a number of conservative groups. But critics point to other groups that rank him lower.
Having seen Senate Republican colleagues fall to tea party-backed insurgents in the last two election cycles, Alexander is taking no chances. He has amassed a $3 million war chest and has the ability to raise millions more or self-fund.
He's already running ads. The latest is a statewide television spot that began airing last week pointing out that he voted 23 times to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans call Obamacare.
But that's not enough for Alexander's critics, who say he should back an effort to defund the health reform law. The move is being led by Senate tea party conservatives like Cruz, of Texas.
Carr called defunding the "right thing to do." Kookogey charged Alexander "will not support the pressure on the president."
Proponents believe the effort would give conservatives leverage because Congress must pass a funding bill by Sept. 30 or risk shutting down some parts of government. But U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has called the effort "silly," saying most parts of Obamacare would not be affected.
On the issues
Asked about how he would solve the issue of illegal immigration, Carr lashed out at executive orders issued by President Barack Obama and said administration officials "refuse to enforce" current laws.
Carr, a leader in pushing state actions directed against people in the U.S. illegally, cited state laws he sponsored or helped pass, including a requirement that many businesses use the federal "E-Verify" system to check workers' legal status.
Kookogey said that "what we lack is the moral resolve to enforce the laws."
Both men didn't think much of a question on whether Republicans should put social issues like abortion on a back burner in order to focus on deficit reduction.
Kookogey said that "all of politics is a moral exercise." Democrats at times understand that better than Republicans, he said, noting GOP presidential candidates John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 "refused to make the moral argument" on any number of issues.
Carr said that "moral direction" is embedded in the Declaration of Independence. It's no coincidence, he said, that the declaration includes the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Earlier, Kookogey cited his personal fight with the Obama administration, accusing the Internal Revenue Service of holding up a tax exemption for a nonprofit group he started. He lauded senators like Cruz and Kentuckian Rand Paul.
"Most of the senators have lost their way," he said. "But they'd do well to remember our rights come from God."
Nashville Tea Party President Ben Cunningham said the forum is the "first step in the process [in which] we hope to beat Lamar."
"It's going to be a very very difficult task and I don't think we should minimize how difficult it's going to be," Cunningham said.
"The one good thing Lamar Alexander is very good at is campaigning," he said. "He's not very good at fighting the Democrats in Congress. He's not very good for fighting for conservative principles. But the one thing that does get Lamar Alexander up every morning is retaining his power. That is a trait he shares, of course, with all the establishment Republicans."
Last week, a poll conducted by Triton Polling & Research said that in a primary race between Alexander and a "credible conservative Republican opponent," 49.5 percent of respondents would support the challenger versus 44.9 percent for Alexander.
The poll of 684 Republican voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent. No one has publicly claim credit for commissioning the poll.
The Alexander campaign quickly released its own survey of 600 likely GOP primary voters that his pollster, Whit Ayres, said shows Alexander in a "very strong position" to fend off GOP rivals. Among other things, the poll showed Alexander had a 3-to-1 lead lead over Carr and a wider margin over Kookogey.
The poll had a margin of plus or minus 4 percent.
National hard-right groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth have said they could support a credible challenger with independent expenditures.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.