WASHINGTON – If Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, as expected, wins the nomination for a third term in the Aug. 7 primary, it will be in spite of the unkind comments some leading conservative groups make about his Senate voting record.
Typical of them is American Conservative Union, founded in 1964 and considered one of the nation's premier conservative voices and among the largest conservative grass-roots advocacy organizations.
When far-right commentators and bloggers hammer Alexander, the ACU's scoring of his Senate votes frequently comes up.
And on Friday, the ACU Political Action Committee sent out its list of endorsements for next week's Tennessee primary and Alexander was not among them. Nor were any of his GOP primary opponents.
Political analysts are left to consider what it means when someone like Alexander, a former GOP governor of Tennessee and Education Secretary under George H.W. Bush, falls out of favor with such organizations.
Alexander's issues "with his right flank speak to the strong feeling among many conservatives and conservative groups that ideological purity is the most important trait a Republican politician can possess," said Geoffrey Skelley of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Nathan Kelly, University of Tennessee political analyst, adds that today's "so-called moderates" like Alexander "would have been viewed as quite conservative even 10 years ago."
Yet, while he doesn't make ACU happy, Alexander has received endorsements from numerous other conservative groups, his staff points out.
Ironically, Alexander also points to endorsements from two former ACU chairmen -- Al Cardenas and David Keene.
Cardenas recently called him "the ultimate conservative problem solver."
But ACU says Alexander became a different type of senator after stepping down from his Senate leadership position, chairman of the Republican Conference, in 2011.
The conventional wisdom among political analysts was that Alexander did so to create more room between himself and far-right senators.
ACU says it worked.
"We have seen a significant decline in his voting," said spokeswoman Meghan Snyder.
Alexander's scores hit a low point with the group in 2013 when he earned a 60 percent rating. He tied Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi for the lowest score among Republican senators facing a primary challenge in 2014. There were four GOP senators with lower scores.
Some of the 2013 votes that most hurt his score, the group said, were:
• Support for a $50 billion relief package for Superstorm Sandy victims with no offsets to keep it from adding to deficits.
• Support for a Violence Against Women Act that increased spending for a range of programs that "fund liberal organizations to carry out an ideological agenda without any results."
• Not supporting an amendment that would have provided funding for interstate bridge projects^ @by taking it from other, "less important" government programs.
• Supporting a Water Resources Development Act that funds "projects that have nothing to do with infrastructure and funds projects that should be handled at the state and local level."
• Supporting President Barack Obama's nominations of Thomas Perez as Labor Secretary and Gina McCarthy, as Environmental Protection Agency director.
"Although Senator Lamar Alexander has supported efforts to fight big labor and end the wind energy tax credit, his ACU rating of 60 is twenty points below even the minimum standard for endorsement consideration," the group said of its endorsement decision.
"ACU PAC believes Tennessee deserves more conservative representation in the Senate."
Over his two-term Senate career, Alexander has only eclipsed the 80-percent standard four times and three of those came in his first three years -- 2003-2005.
Since he last stood for re-election in 2008, his scores have been 68 percent (2009), 80 percent (2010), 75 percent (2011), 68 percent (2012) and 60 percent (2013).
His lifetime ACU score has gone from 89 percent a decade ago to 76 percent.
Regardless, Alexander spokesman Brian Reisinger points to endorsements the senator has received from prominent conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Reagan-era economist Art Laffer and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.
And Keene, the former ACU chairman, said in a statement: "If I were making a scorecard for Sen. Alexander, I would start with his 'A' rating from the NRA, his 100 percent rating with National Right to Life, and his 100 percent rating with the United States Chamber of Commerce."
But some prominent conservative groups give Alexander even worse scores than ACU.
Heritage Action, an arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank, gives Alexander a 49 percent score for the 113th Congress.
It's all reflective, Skelley said, of Alexander still embracing "a relatively pragmatic conservatism."
Mirroring national trends, Kelly said, many in the Tennessee GOP are becoming increasingly hard-right. If Alexander wins, he said, "I think it says more about Alexander's personal brand and incumbent advantage than it says about Tennessee's politics."
Contact Paul C. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @PaulCBarton