Tea party set to audition challengers for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

photo U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Tea Party and national conservative groups are hoping to find the Volunteer State equivalent of a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz to mount a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The tea party will host five "vetting" sessions starting Aug. 31 in Nashville, when the groups are slated to hear from former Williamson County GOP Chairman Kevin Kookogey, challenger Brenda Lenard and possibly Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.

On Sept. 14, the Chattanooga Tea Party and the Beat Lamar PAC, which is co-sponsoring the events statewide, will hold a forum in Chattanooga. Other forums are scheduled for Memphis, Knoxville and Johnson City.

Nashville Tea Party President Ben Cunningham said he believes a candidate will announce shortly.

"I think in the next week to 10 days things will get a lot clearer," Cunningham said last week.

If conservatives can coalesce around a credible candidate and get an "open debate" on Alexander's record, "I think Lamar Alexander can be beat," Cunningham said. "His voting record is clearly not the kind of voting record you would expect from most senators from Tennessee."

But Alexander critics' hopes amount to a "big if" at this point, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor with the Washington-based, nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Tea party challengers have successfully upset other incumbents in Republican Senate primaries, Gonzales said, "but you've got to have a candidate. You can't beat somebody with nobody."

Money and organization play a role, he said. And referring to an open letter dozens of tea party groups wrote last week calling on Alexander to retire, Gonzales said, "It was nice of people to, I guess, take a stab at just asking him to leave. I don't think that's going to work."

Alexander supporters point to his mint of money, his voting record and his mainstream support.

Early in the search

There's been a lot of buzz about Kookogey, head of Linchpins of Liberty, who testified to Congress during the scandal over IRS targeting of political groups seeking tax exemptions.

Cunningham said Kookogey "appears to be very serious."

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He hasn't declared, but he's doing all the things you need to do to be prepared," Cunningham said.

Kookogey did not respond to an email request for an interview.

But Cunningham said there are "lots of people out there."

Burchett, in an interview, expressed interest in running but said he has made no commitment. The former eight-term state representative said he is "frustrated" over the atmosphere in Washington and unhappy with some of Alexander's votes, including a Senate-passed immigration bill.

"Government just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and they propose more programs and they don't address the problems they've created," Burchett said. "They just move on to the next one. Then they come home at election time and throw the red meat at all the Republican clubs -- and Democrats do the same thing."

Burchett alluded to Alexander's war chest -- the senator reported $3 million in cash on hand in his last report.

"It's the same people, the money-first crowd, the ruling class, so to speak, in both parties," Burchett said. "They run our state and they're always the ones at the table. And it seems like the taxpayers are always the one on the menu."

But Burchett said he enjoys being Knoxville's mayor. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Saturday that Burchett won't be going to the Aug. 31 tea party event.

Define "conservative"

Alexander's critics are outraged by his votes in areas such as the immigration bill, which they call an "amnesty" measure for illegal immigrants, as well as votes to confirm some of President Barack Obama's nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

They also point to Alexander's rankings by groups such as the Club for Growth.

But the Alexander campaign claims a conservative stance, with an A ranking from the National Rifle Association and 100 percent ratings from National Right to Life and the National Federation of Independent Business. The campaign says in 2012, Congressional Quarterly found Alexander voted with the majority of Republican senators 83 percent of the time.

A Vanderbilt University poll of 813 registered voters taken in May found 53 percent of Tennesseans have a favorable view of Alexander, who served two terms as governor, was U.S. secretary of education and has run twice for president.

Alexander's approval was 60 percent among Republicans and 62 percent among self-identified tea party voters. The poll's margin of error was 4 percent overall and higher in subcategories.

After appearing last month with Alexander at a Middle Tennessee event honoring GOP county chairmen, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., in an interview called Alexander an "outstanding senator" and said he looks to be in "great shape."

"The senator's done an excellent job, I think, to reach out to all the spectrum of our party," he said.

Alexander is supported by virtually all of Tennessee's top Republican officeholders, including Gov. Bill Haslam, six of the seven GOP congressmen and the state Senate and House speakers.

One Tennessee Republican strategist, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said Alexander's critics amount to a "small group of really loud people."

"I think most Republicans are happy with Lamar," he said. "Every public official has a couple of votes you don't like."

Cunningham, however, said, "We're not in this to be Don Quixote. We're here to push a set of values that are near and dear to Tennesseans ... and have someone vote those values."

Cash is key

If Alexander does pick up an opponent, it will be another battle in the fraternal war between hard-right and more-moderate Republicans in Tennessee and the nation.

In 2010, Haslam fended off two GOP primary challengers from the right -- Zach Wamp, of Chattanooga, a former congressman, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a tea party favorite.

But national conservative groups are taking a close look at Alexander.

"We think he's vulnerable," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee. "In terms of finding a specific challenger, we've been talking to some specific people, but we don't have a candidate at this point."

Support for conservative principles is a given, Hoskins said. Another important factor is "evidence that people in Tennessee are excited about them." That translates into a candidate being able to raise money on his or her own.

"We're certainly willing to support underdogs -- that's what we do, and we take risks. But we want to make sure there is a pathway to win the primary and the general election," Hoskins said.

Barney Keller with the Club for Growth, another national group supporting limited government and less regulation, called Alexander's record "better than most of the Democrats and worse than most of the Republicans."

"We have to see if [a potential challenger] is a viable alternative and they vote pro-growth," Keller said. But it has to begin with an actual candidate, he said, adding, "We're watching the race. If it develops, we'll go through our normal due diligence process."

The Club for Growth threw $2.5 million against former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in last year's GOP primary. Lugar lost to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who went on to lose the general election to Democrat Joe Donnelly.

One of the main Tennessee groups opposing Alexander, the Beat Lamar PAC, last month reported $1,400 in cash on hand.

Steve Gill, a consultant and former conservative talk radio show host, said he believes an opponent would need to raise $3 million in Tennessee to establish credibility and attract funding from national groups.

"If you get past the hurdle of, 'Are you a credible candidate and do you have enough money to run a credible race?' then I think the whole race becomes, 'Does Lamar get re-elected?'" Gill said. "I think the burden completely shifts to Lamar and his record."

But any candidate should expect an all-out effort from the Alexander campaign to try quickly to define the opponent in unflattering terms, he said. That's happening in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has moved aggressively to define his tea party challenger, Matt Blevin, Gill noted.

"They'll certainly subscribe to kill the baby in the cradle before he gets any money, before he gets his leg under him," Gill said of the Alexander campaign.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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