Monied tea party groups watching Alexander challenger

WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who makes no secret of disliking some of the legislative tactics of the GOP's tea party wing, finds himself disliked by groups that aggressively fund tea party candidates.

But while unfavorably viewing the two-term Tennessee incumbent, organizations that strongly supported tea party candidates such as Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas in recent elections have yet to decide about helping state Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas. Carr remains Alexander's only announced opponent in the 2014 Republican primary.

"We would love to find a replacement for Lamar Alexander," said Matt Hoskins, spokesman for the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that gave $315,991 to Cruz in his 2012 race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks political dollars.

The conservative, pro-tea party group, which primarily funds challengers, leaves no doubt as to its response if Alexander were to ask for funds.

"Lamar Alexander not only doesn't need help, he won't get our help," Hoskins said. "He is not a conservative."

The Senate Conservatives Fund is one of many right wing groups that give the 73-year-old Tennessee incumbent poor scores on their annual scorecards -- where they rate how often members of Congress vote in line with the organizations on selected issues. Alexander's scores rated as low as 42 percent from Heritage Action for America.

Alexander has denounced reliance on such scorecards and stood up to tea party criticism in a recent op-ed piece in The Tennessean. He said "you have to work with other people -- that is, if you really care about solving the problem, if you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech."

Hoskins, meanwhile, declined to comment on whether the Senate Conservatives Fund would help Carr, saying only that his organization wants a viable primary challenger to emerge. The fund will be looking for evidence of strong grass-roots support, he said, in deciding whether to contribute to a candidate.

In a recent interview with the National Journal, a Washington-based public policy magazine, Hoskins said, "We're a little concerned about Carr." The group was worried, the publication said, about Carr's inability to garner support after his initial decision to run for the seat of Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper.

The Club for Growth, one of many conservative Washington groups that advocate low taxes and limited government, holds similar views on Alexander.

"Senator Alexander has an abysmal record on our issues," said Barney Keller, spokesman for the organization.

In recent elections, the Club for Growth has given $705,657 to Cruz and $106,515 to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., elected in 2010. Alexander has gotten zero in the same period.

When asked about Carr, Keller said only, "We're watching the race."

At the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, spokesman Jeff Marschner said Alexander has repeatedly disappointed.

"Senator Lamar Alexander time and again has frustrated the conservative movement and that is why Citizens United Political Victory Fund is taking a long hard look at this U.S. Senate primary," Marschner said, declining further comment on the race.

Citizens United also helped both Paul and Cruz.

Carr promised in an interview: "I can tell you by early next year we will be more than competitive to garner the attention of whoever wants to pay attention."

He added, "We're excited about the opportunity to make this a race of national significance."

Carr, who announced his Senate bid in August, starts from a position of trailing badly in the money chase, however.

The latest Federal Election Commission reports, reflecting fundraising activity through Sept. 30, shows Carr with a total of $285,507 compared to Alexander's $2.8 million.

When asked about not getting support from Washington tea party groups, Alexander's campaign focused instead on the support it is getting from sources closer to home.

"We're very pleased that thousands of Tennesseans from all across the state have seen fit to support Senator Alexander's re-election," campaign manager Alice Rolli said. "This year we've raised more than $4 million and we appreciate each and every contribution."

While Alexander has been adamant in his denunciation of the Obama administration on many issues this year -- not the least of which has been the implementation of the health care reform law -- Tennessee political observers doubt whether he will be able to mend fences with tea party groups.

Bruce Oppenheimer, political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said Alexander serves another purpose by highlighting his opposition to the president.

"He certainly doesn't want to give conservative but non-tea party Republicans a reason to support a tea party primary challenger," Oppenheimer said.

"And he doesn't have to worry about losing the support of more moderate Republicans. So articulating positions a bit to the right is sensible strategically," Oppenheimer said. "A tea party candidate can't beat Alexander with just hard-core tea party support.

Alexander is simply protecting against that challenger attracting other conservative Republicans."


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