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By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean

A political action committee that specializes in taking on incumbent Republicans attacked U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander Monday over reports that his campaign worked with the Tennessee State Museum to organize a traveling exhibit about him.

The head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC that helped Rand Paul and Ted Cruz win seats in the Senate, accused Alexander of "political favor swapping" and said the organization is working with others in Tennessee to find a challenger to the two-term senator before next summer's GOP primary.

The group was reacting to news that Alexander's campaign manager, Alice Rolli, was involved in discussing plans for the traveling exhibit even as the senator was gearing up his re-election effort, and also that Alexander successfully pushed through $400,000 in federal funding for the museum in 2009. The exhibit was postponed until after 2015 - so it won't be on display until Alexander has stood for re-election - after those discussions became public.

The involvement of the Senate Conservatives Fund increases the chances that he will face a primary challenge. Founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who emerged as a leading voice of tea party conservatives, the fund has a history of working aggressively to defeat sitting Republicans senators - often to the chagrin of other party members.

"We think he is out of step with the state," said Matt Hoskins, the PAC's executive director. "We want to make sure that voters in Tennessee have an opportunity to vote for somebody who represents their values."

The Senate Conservatives Fund raised and spent nearly $16 million during the 2012 election cycle and it spent $8 million during the 2010 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Paul and Cruz were among the winners it backed, as well as Utah's Mike Lee and Florida's Marco Rubio.

The group's goal is to increase conservative representation in the Senate, but it also has supported a host of unsuccessful Senate candidates, including Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri, all ultimately defeated by Democrats. DeMint left the organization when he resigned from the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation.

So far, the Senate Conservatives Fund has raised about $1.4 million for the 2014 election. Much of its work has been focused on Sen. Mitch McConnell, but the organization sees Alexander as a potential target.

Hoskins said the PAC has been meeting with activists in Tennessee and potential challengers to Alexander, whom he would not name.

The group entered the fray after the state museum rescheduled an exhibit on Alexander's gubernatorial years that was supposed to visit at least eight Tennessee cities between Sept. 7 and late 2014.

Hoskins noted that Alexander secured $400,000 for the museum in 2009. He said the exhibit demonstrates why such "earmarks" - federal spending directed by members of Congress - should be banned.

Museum officials denied any connection between the exhibition and the 2009 appropriation, which was used for the preservation of artifacts. They said the show was put together by Vanderbilt University, Alexander's alma mater, and that the museum started discussions with the university about taking it on the road before Alexander announced plans to seek a third term.

"The allegation is just out of fantasyland," State Museum Commission Chairman Victor Ashe said. "It's totally untrue. I've not heard anyone suggest the exhibit at Vanderbilt is political."

Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for Alexander, said the senator is too focused on his congressional work to be concerned about a potential challenger, and he denied any connection between the exhibit and the 2009 earmark.

"Somebody is making a silly political stretch," he said. "The truth is, the federal funding secured in 2009 was for the preservation of permanent museum artifacts. If and when this exhibit occurs, it will be funded with private money, just like all of the museum's traveling exhibits."

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