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.
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.
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.