By Joey Garrison / The Tennessean
In search of the next Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, tea party activists in Tennessee are launching a series of "vetting" sessions to find a challenger to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in next year's Republican primary.
Yet whether they have the organization, backing and cohesiveness needed to pull off what would be a monumental upset remains a huge question.
The month-long process begins Aug. 31 in Nashville at a still-to-be-determined location. As described by the event's organizers, tea party supporters will listen as prospective Senate candidates take the podium and then ask them about the issues.
Nashville Tea Party President Ben Cunningham, who believes one candidate could formally announce his or her candidacy as early as next week, said the event marks the beginning of a "very serious process" to find a consensus tea party contender to challenge Alexander's bid for a third term in the GOP Senate primary next August.
"Everybody has agreed that we need to get behind a single candidate and put our efforts behind someone who can challenge Lamar, debate his public record and basically just push back against the Republican establishment that is trying to bully and intimidate anyone who wants to run against him," Cunningham said.
Unseating Alexander, whose public service in Tennessee goes back to 1979 as governor, would mean knocking off a political legend in this state. And it's still unclear whether tea party activists in Tennessee are adequately organized or have enough money to run a competitive campaign.
The tea party gatherings are courtesy of the Coalition for a Constitutional Senate, comprised of more than 60 Tennessee tea party and far-right groups, the Nashville Tea Party and a political action committee known as BEAT LAMAR.
This coalition, increasingly vocal about its dissatisfaction with Alexander, is hoping to find Tennessee's version of the libertarian-minded Senate candidates that have found success in other states.
In addition to Kentucky's Paul and Cruz in Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah round out a quartet of recently elected senators who had tea party backing.
The Nashville event is the first of several forums, with others set for Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Johnson City. At some point during that process, organizers intend to endorse someone to take on Alexander.
"We're looking for somebody who will represent Tennessee as well as Ted Cruz represents Texas," said Michael Patrick Leahy, co-founder of BEAT LAMAR. "And we'll find that candidate."
Only three possible candidates have been invited to the forum: Brenda Lenard of Knoxville, the lone person to announce plans to run and who lost to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in the Republican primary two years ago; Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett; and attorney Kevin Kookogey, former chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party.
"It's something I'm considering," Burchett said of a primary run, though he's unsure he can attend the first forum. "I guess I've always been a little upset at the money-first crowd that just seems to continuously run every aspect of our state and our party."
Kookogey, who left his Williamson GOP post last year, is the name mentioned most often by observers. He did not respond to messages from The Tennessean, but he's made his dissatisfaction with Alexander known, most recently at a July anti-Alexander rally in Smyrna.
"Lamar Alexander has failed in faithfulness to his oath and he must answer for it," he told a crowd there.
Tea party organizers cite several of Alexander's votes as the basis for their hostility, with his support for comprehensive federal immigration reform the latest. On Wednesday, leaders from 20 tea party groups from across the state signed a letter asking Alexander to retire, citing his record of "compromise and bipartisanship."
Asked about the restless pack on the far right, Alexander spokesman Jim Jeffries deflected the topic: "Senator Alexander is focused on being the best senator he can be."
The BEAT LAMAR PAC has $1,400 cash-on-hand, according to a report filed last month, compared to more than $3 million for Alexander. A key out-of-state tea party group could help make up some of that difference, though.
The head of Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC that helped Paul and Cruz win seats in the Senate, said this week it would aid the effort to find a tea party challenger to Alexander. They did so after reports emerged that his campaign worked with the Tennessee State Museum to organize a traveling exhibit about him.
In 2012, the PAC sprinkled nearly $16 million in funds to candidates nationwide.
"We think [Alexander] is out of step with the state," said Matt Hoskins, the PAC's executive director.
But John Geer, chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt University, said Tennessee lacks the ingredients for a winning insurgency.
"There's a small segment of the extreme right-wing in the state that might like to replace Lamar, but all the data I've seen - even among people who identify themselves as tea partiers - Lamar still remains quite popular," Geer said.
A Vanderbilt poll conducted in May found that 62 percent of self-identified tea party voters support Alexander - two percentage points higher than Republican voters.
"Also, who's the candidate?" Geer said. "There isn't some amazingly popular, well-known figure who could even effectively challenge the senator."
A few names surfaced this past year but were quickly ruled out as contenders. World Wrestling Entertainment star Glenn Jacobs has said he has no plans to run for public office after it was reported he might run against Alexander. Franklin Republican Monty Lankford, who ran for Congress in 2008, has said he won't challenge Alexander, either.
Despite Tennessee's sharp veer to the right politically, tea party groups have a mixed record here. Their choice for governor three years ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, lost soundly to Bill Haslam. Ramsey supports Alexander's 2014 re-election campaign, as does nearly every top Republican in the state.
Alexander's honorary co-chairs include Haslam, Ramsey, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, House Speaker Beth Harwell, every Republican United States member of Congress from Tennessee besides embattled Rep. Scott DesJarlais, and every former Tennessee Republican governor and senator.
Still, Leahy of the BEAT LAMAR group doesn't flinch.
"What they think of this Senate election is entirely irrelevant because they are not the ones who will be voting," he said.