Strange Bedfellow

Would You Give Money to This Man?

Why does anyone contribute to Lamar Alexander’s presidential campaign?

Lamar Alexander intends to raise at least $15 million in 1999 for his presidential campaign. This raises a critical question: How? How on earth does Lamar (“Lamar!”) Alexander, who has been running for president nonstop since 1995, convince tens of thousands of Americans that his campaign is a reasonable investment?

Let us stipulate: Alexander is a serious politician who should be taken seriously as a serious presidential candidate by serious voters everywhere. He served two successful terms as Tennessee governor and a few years as secretary of education. He’s smart, thoughtful, and persistent. In recent years, he has spent 120 days in Iowa and 40 in New Hampshire, more time than any other Republican prospect. For 2000 he has dropped the absurd trappings of his 1996 campaign: A gray suit has replaced the embarrassing plaid shirt, “Lamar!” has become “Gov. Alexander,” and he has stopped playing the piano at campaign stops.

Yet Alexander remains, as one GOP strategist politely puts it, an “extreme underdog.” Recent polls of Republican caucus voters in Iowa, where Alexander claims to have the best organization, show him in fifth place with 7.7 percent, behind Dan Quayle. In California, a recent poll found him 10th in the GOP field with 1 percent. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken even before George W. Bush became a serious candidate gave Alexander only 2 percent support among Republicans. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, and (to a lesser extent) John McCain are eating his lunch, capturing the mainstream conservatives on whom Alexander depends.

Why, then, would anyone bother to fund Alexander’s campaign? (You could ask the same question about Quayle.) To answer this riddle, I went to the folks who know: the people who are funding his campaign. Alexander’s presidential campaign doesn’t have to file contributor lists with the Federal Election Commission till April, but the FEC does keep records for Campaign for a New American Century, Alexander’s main PAC. CNAC raised and spent nearly $5 million from 1996 to 1998–including $2.7 million in 1998 alone–to fund Alexander’s unofficial presidential campaign. I downloaded the list of 1998 CNAC contributors and interviewed 17 of them at random.

CNAC donors are not exactly campaign contributors, but they are close. All gave to CNAC in order to help Alexander’s presidential run, and all but one say they have already donated or will donate to Alexander’s presidential campaign. Most of them are prosperous businesspeople in Tennessee and bordering states, folks who can afford to give a few thousand to CNAC and another grand to the presidential campaign.

Of the 17 Alexandrians I contacted, five consider themselves acquaintances of Lamar, 10 call themselves friends (including an old roommate, a godmother to his kids, and someone who ate dinner with him the night before), and one is his brother-in-law. In other words, only one of them doesn’t know him, and most know him extremely well. “He’s a friend and I like him, and when a friend asks for help, you give him help,” says Peter Flanigan, who worked with Alexander in the Nixon White House and gave CNAC $5,000. Now I doubt even the congenial Lamar has 15,000 friends and acquaintances, but he probably has enough to make a dent in that $15 million.

Obviously, the friends and acquaintances are not contributing simply out of affection. Alexander’s supporters universally admire his brains, decency, commitment to public service, and honor. They applaud his stewardship of Tennessee and his devotion to education. “He has a lot of experience governing. He has the skills to carry out what he believes in. He would be a very effective president,” says Marvin Pomerantz, an Iowa businessman and Alexander friend who contributed $5,000.

Which brings us to the $15 million question: Do they actually believe he can be elected president? They are optimistic but also more realistic than you might expect. Ron Sheffer, a Kentucky contributor, admits that the odds of Lamar winning the GOP nomination are 15-to-1 against. The contributors all recognize that he would be trounced by Bush and Dole if the primaries were held today. Instead they cling to second-placism: Their man is the “strongest backup candidate,” as one puts it.

They all paint me the same scene: “He has the best organization in Iowa. Iowa and New Hampshire will narrow it down to two or three candidates, and I think he will be one of them,” says Marty Connors, an Alabama Republican activist who gave CNAC $250. Lamar may not be known nationwide, but “Iowa and New Hampshire know what he stands for. And Iowa and New Hampshire are going to tell the rest of the country who to vote for,” says Connors. Once Lamar graduates from Iowa and New Hampshire, they say, he will rise to the top because he’s so “electable.”

And how exactly will Alexander manage to finish second or third in Iowa and New Hampshire? A Bush calamity as well as a Dole collapse (and perhaps a McCain implosion for good measure). Being loyal Republicans, Lamar’s contributors talk about such happenings only obliquely. A few mention a “Bush stumble,” but most are even more circumspect. “Other candidates could have something unfavorable in their past. Other candidates could get sick,” says George Van, who runs a financial management business in Nashville.

“Other candidates may be sexier at this hour, but once we go through the battering of New Hampshire and Iowa it might be a different story,” says Connors. “I think the subtext of this election will be, ‘I will not embarrass you.’ I know with absolute certainty that Lamar Alexander is without reproach.”

“The press will reveal things about candidates that otherwise would not be revealed,” says Carole Sergent, a college classmate of Alexander’s and godmother to one of his children. “There are no secrets with Lamar. But when people scrutinize and see what those front-runners are really about …”

Because they are relying on a Bush fade, the contributors easily discount Lamar’s dismal poll numbers. It’s too early for the polls to mean anything, they say. Voters are probably still reacting to “that plaid shirt,” says Tom Black, a Nashville software entrepreneur. The Alexandrians reject the polls in favor of a 1996 number: 3,500. The contributors repeat this figure as though it had talismanic power. If only Lamar had won 3,500 more votes in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, he would have edged Bob Dole for second, driven Dole out of the race, and cruised to the nomination. The 1996 near miss allows them to ignore the uglier facts of 2000: that Lamar faces a stronger field and has lower poll numbers.

The 17 contributors admire the doggedness that has made Alexander a figure of fun to the press. They call his nonstop campaigning since 1995 evidence of his persistence. “I don’t think you should make fun of anyone who has a strong desire for public service. It takes hard work, and he will outwork all the others,” says Brent Rice, a Kentucky real estate developer.

The endless campaign has “tested” him in ways that novice candidates such as Bush and Dole can’t even imagine. Republicans believe in dues paying, say Lamar’s supporters. Over and over, they remind me that the last Republican who won the presidency in his first campaign was Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan lost before he was nominated, as did George Bush and Richard Nixon.

The way the contributors figure it, Alexander is running against the other veteran candidates: Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Quayle. By that calculus, I suppose, a contribution to Lamar is a great bet.