- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

He’s an upstart Republican working his plain-spoken charm in a state chock-full of tea party support, accusing his well-known establishment opponent of running from his moderate record, ignoring his constituents’ wishes and supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants.

No, Virginia, this isn’t a rehash of college professor David Brat’s stunning win over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last month.

But if 56-year-old state lawmaker Joe Carr has his way, there could be a similar outcome in his long-shot bid to unseat one of Tennessee’s legendary politicians, Sen. Lamar Alexander, in the state’s Aug. 7 primary.

For tea party enthusiasts, Tennessee is shaping up to be one of the best last hopes to score a victory before the primary season draws to a close. But some of its warriors have had a hard time shaking off the hangover from the primary race in neighboring Mississippi, where they almost knocked off longtime Sen. Thad Cochran.

“I think the movement is turning its focus to Tennessee, but not fast enough because this race in Mississippi has lingered on so long,” said Judson Phillips, a Tennessee native who created one of the country’s larger tea party groups, Tea Party Nation.

“It’s finally dawning on people on our side that Lamar Alexander is one of the most vulnerable liberal Republicans left that we can take out in the primary,” Mr. Phillips said Thursday.

Whether or not Mr. Carr can win, he does offer deep personal faith in God, little faith in big government and a rambunctious willingness to buck Republican Party establishment leaders — ingredients that have helped dish up victories for other tea party long shots such as Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Mr. Brat.

“I try to do everything through my worldview, my personal relationship with God, and am going to surround myself with people who have the same worldview as I do,” Mr. Carr said in an interview with The Washington Times.

The Tennessee state representative has a strong local tea party base that can help get out the vote for a primary in the dead of summer, when most people are dreaming of vacations and not ballot boxes.

Mr. Carr also boasts a 100 percent American Conservative Union rating, compared with a modest 60 percent for Mr. Alexander. Heritage Action, the think tank’s activist arm, gives Mr. Alexander a 49 percent rating, compared with 100 percent for Mr. Lee and 98 percent for Mr. Cruz. That has helped the challenger portray Mr. Alexander as a RINO — Republican in name only — the moniker that inspires tea party voters to mobilize.

The immigration issue — which Mr. Carr has relentlessly used against the incumbent senator — remains white-hot in the news media this summer with the crisis of immigrant children being dumped at the Mexican border.

“It’s what Brat defeated Cantor with,” Mr. Carr said.

And while Mr. Alexander remains far ahead in the polls, there are hopeful signs for Mr. Carr. The incumbent is below 50 percent in primary polls, and a theoretical poll for the general election shows Mr. Carr would likely win in the fall by a healthy margin over the Democratic candidate. Throw in a bunch of endorsements for Mr. Carr from fellow state lawmakers, and it adds to a portrait of viability.

Formidable base

Mr. Alexander, 73, a former governor and two-time Republican presidential candidate, still has a formidable base in a deeply red state where a Democrat hasn’t won statewide since 2006. He also has more than a 5-1 advantage in fundraising.

Mr. Carr’s goal for the final month of campaigning is to portray Mr. Alexander as too liberal for conservative Tennesseans.

Mr. Carr blasted anti-amnesty TV ads into homes and offices from Knoxville to Memphis last month — his first message with the mass medium since his campaign began.

Even when pollsters soften the term “amnesty” to “a path to citizenship,” a plurality of self-identified moderates and independents side with the majority of conservatives who say, in effect, that naturalizing people in the U.S. illegally is poison for Republican candidates.

Able to claim authorship or support for a series of tough measures against illegal immigrants since his initial 2008 election to the Tennessee legislature, Mr. Carr drives the issue daily. He is convinced it’s the biggest weapon against an establishment incumbent in modern intraparty warfare.

Mr. Alexander has not said he supports amnesty, but, what’s more important for TV ad writers, he has not explicitly ruled it out either.

Last year, Mr. Alexander voted for a bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that critics charged would provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. Mr. Carr emphasizes that the legislative effort was led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. That alliance cost Mr. Rubio national support among some on the right.

But Mr. Alexander is no Eric Cantor either. He is considered more affable and accessible to voters than the Virginia Republican who has been pushed out of office.

Unlike Mr. Cantor, Mr. Alexander has maintained and strengthened his ties to his Tennessee base since he quit his Senate leadership post in 2012. He has shrugged off Mr. Carr’s demands for a one-on-one debate while running ads touting endorsements from figures such as country music star Kix Brooks and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Alexander, 73, also is known for making a piano come alive and bringing smiles to the traveling press corps, political donors and his family.

Flannel shirts are Mr. Alexander’s trademark on the campaign trail, and he has earned a reputation as an accomplished gentleman in American politics, having served as governor of Tennessee, U.S. education secretary and presidential candidate.

Spillover effects

One unknown in the race is the spillover effect from neighboring Mississippi, where state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a little-known tea party favorite, nearly unseated the six-term incumbent after hammering away at issues such as Mr. Cochran’s long Washington tenure and amnesty.

Mr. Carr vows to continue the immigration fight Mr. McDaniel waged in Mississippi.

Faith is another key component of Mr. Carr’s political persona in a state dotted heavily with Baptists and evangelical voters.

“My faith is an integral part of who I am,” he said, noting that he prayed and meditated before embarking on his campaign.

Mr. Alexander also is openly religious. He has said many times that “religion solves very many problems that government can’t solve,” but he has made a nuanced distinction between himself and the religious conservative movement.

“The soul of the Republican Party is a devotion to liberty and limited government, [but] the breakdown of a moral society, the family structure, the lack of an ability in our country to say that some things are right and some things are wrong — that’s the most serious problem we have as this country,” he said in a 1999 interview. “So I’m glad that the energy of Christian conservatives is a part of the Republican Party. The main thing I hope to do is to help our party shift its agenda.”

Campaign cash is one of Mr. Carr’s biggest disadvantages. Mr. Alexander has raised more than $5 million, compared with less than $1 million for the upstart challenger.

In the absence of cash, Mr. Carr has used his personal story to touch voters.

Mr. Alexander is a product of the prestigious Vanderbilt University and New York University Law School. Mr. Carr attended the kinds of schools most other Americans have on their resumes, in his case undergraduate and some graduate work at Middle Tennessee State University.

On the personal side, Mr. Carr speaks proudly of his father having piloted fighters in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He also boasts of his own post-college initiative, having started with his brother what he described as “two successful engineering companies.”

Mr. Carr and his wife, Virginia, who have three children, now own and live on a small farm in Lascassas, a town 40 miles southeast of Nashville.

He is quick to explain how he would be different from Mr. Alexander in the Senate.

“I will fight Republican majority leaders in the U.S. Senate on principle,” said.

He added that he is “willing to stand alone on principle” if he has to but thinks it’s more likely he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Mr. Cruz, Mr. Lee and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who see compromises with Democrats too often as de facto capitulation by Republicans.

That’s music to the tea party’s ears, for sure, but whether it will be enough to secure the most votes in the Tennessee Republican primary is another question.

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