Kevin Kookogey backs out of tea party bid against Sen. Alexander

3:55 PM, Sep 3, 2013   |    comments
Kevin Kookogey addresses the media during a press conference for The Tea Party Express on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, in Nashville. / George Walker IV / File / The Tennessean
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Wednesday, Sept. 4 had been the date Kevin Kookogey planned to invite reporters to hear a big announcement: He would be launching a tea party challenge to Sen. Lamar Alexander.

But those plans are suddenly scratched, and the former Williamson County Republican Party chairman won't be running for U.S. Senate next August after all.

Hoping to avoid "in-fighting" among tea party activists, who already have one candidate running against the incumbent senator, Kookogey told The Tennessean on Tuesday he won't run for U.S. Senate, scrapping what had been three months of preparation for a campaign.

It's a change-of-heart that he reached following an event on Saturday, the first of a series of tea party vetting sessions designed to coalesce around a single candidate. And it's a calculation that comes at the final last minute.

In the end, he said, dividing conservatives would be "disastrous" to the ultimate end: beating Alexander.

"What became apparent to me was that there was going to be divided loyalties," he said. "Both sides appeared to have their supporters, and it didn't appear they were going to yield to each other."

For the entire summer, Republican insiders had speculated on a post-Labor Day Senate announcement from Kookogey, who gained notoriety in May when his conservative group, Linchpins of Liberty, was among those targeted by the Internal Revenue Service for tax-status scrutiny.

The September announcement was in order, he said.

But conservative state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, upended the time-line -- and the entire contest -- when he unexpectedly announced last month that he would be ditching his primary bid against U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais to run against Alexander.

"Joe's announcement kind of came out of left field," Kookogey said, adding that he alerted Carr's campaign about concerns of diluting the conservative base.

On Sunday, Kookogey informed Tennessee tea party activists that he would no longer be competing in a series of candidate forums sponsored by the "Beat Lamar" political action committee. Yet in an email conveying those plans, he still referred to himself as an "unannounced candidate," which seemed to suggest he was still planning a run.

The potential of splitting up the tea party base would have been a major hurdle standing in beating Alexander, though Carr has said he would step aside if a fellow tea party candidate gained momentum and he didn't.

In a poll released last week by Alexander's re-election campaign, Alexander leads Carr 64 percent to 22 percent. Kookogey, who said he wouldn't be endorsing anyone at this point, was only polling at 15 percent.

Some have questioned whether Carr is in position to land out-of-state tea party PAC funds to bankroll a viable campaign. The head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has given millions of dollars to tea party Senate candidates in other states, has said the group is "a little concerned about Carr."

Carr could still have tea party company. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, polling a point ahead of Carr, hasn't ruled out a run against Alexander.

Burchett, however, did not attend Saturday's "Beat Lamar" forum in Nashville.

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