The Last Tea Party

A tough 2014 primary season for conservative challengers ends with a near-miss.

Lamar Alexander.

Sen. Lamar Alexander didn’t go down to a Tea Party challenger like Eric Cantor did, but he didn’t win his Thursday primary in a landslide either.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

MURFREESBORO, Tennessee—The final day of the last Tea Party-against-the-machine campaign of a disappointing year began with a Fox News interview. Joe Carr, the three-term state representative running against Sen. Lamar Alexander, arrived early to Koch’s Bakery (no relation to the billionaire industrialists) in Chattanooga, where correspondent John Roberts asked what it would mean if the insurgent got whupped.

“It will be because, we, this campaign didn’t do everything we needed to do the get our message out,” said Carr.

A few dozen people trickled in and out of the bakery, taking photos with the candidate, talking about why he deserved to win, as his daughter wrangled media and took photos for the campaign’s Twitter feed. Michael Scallia, the owner of a family shoe repair business, smiled at the scene from beneath a cap with the Gadsden flag emblazoned above the brim.

“Lamar has violated his oath to the Constitution so many times over the years,” he said. “He’s voted against the people and with the government.” Carr, argued Scallia, was “pro-life, anti-Obamacare, all the good stuff,” whereas Alexander had cast an unforgiveable vote.

“He’s voted for Obamacare,” said Scallia. “In the Obamacare, gun control was attached, like an earmark. Anything that takes my Second Amendment rights away is a major blow.”

This was not actually true; that a voter believed it was a signal of what Alexander had to put up with, and what a restive conservative base has come to think about its Washington representatives. It was the reason half a dozen Republican senators had to fend off challengers in 2014, and why more than $100 million had been spent on these intraparty scuffles. Surely, it was the reason why Alexander, who has not lost an election in Tennessee since 1974, spent the final week of the campaign crossing the state on a bus, joined by many of the Republican politicians who had endorsed him—i.e., almost all of them.

Alexander opposed the Affordable Care Act, but disagreed with the 2013 strategy to defund it—the fight that began the government shutdown. That was enough to embolden local Tea Parties to hold meetings and a convention, and get behind a challenger. Alexander opposed every one of 2013’s gun safety bills, but he voted for cloture to begin debate on them. That was enough to turn the National Association for Gun Rights against him.

Oh; and Alexander voted for 2013’s immigration reform bill, which is lost somewhere in John Boehner’s office and rediscovered only when conservatives roll it up to slap one of its supporters in the face. Carr, a burly 56-year-old with short white hair and a trim beard, made his name on the right by passing new restrictions on illegal immigration. After then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to a professor named Dave Brat, the same forces that backed Brat—radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, to name the most famous—dubbed Carr the next shock upsetter.

In Chattanooga there was no sign of a Carr surge. No one had actually released a reliable public poll of the race since January, long before Carr got his national media attention. In Koch’s, he sat down with me to talk about what had almost happened the day before in Kansas, where Sen. Pat Roberts had survived a Tea Party challenge from radiologist Milton Wolf.

“It was 48–41, is that right?” Carr asked.

That was right.

“That just shows you that the pollsters are wrong in their methodology and their sample,” said Carr. “They blew it pretty bad in the Dave Brat race. Nobody, nobody in their right minds believes that Lamar Alexander has had anything like a 30-point lead in this state. It’s not very professional for a pollster to put out numbers without crosstabs. Hey, I can put out a memo—Joe Carr does a poll, he’s winning with 80 percent of the vote! What we needed to do, with great discipline and perseverance, was build a ground game. We knew at some point in time in the 2014 election cycle, there’d be one event that just”—he held his hands close then threw them apart—“exploded on the scene.”

This, according to Carr, was Dave Brat’s victory. “We were in Obion County,” he said. “I was speaking to about 80, 85 people, we were about done. Somebody waves his iPhone in the back of the room—Dave Brat just beat Cantor! And the place just exploded!”

There’s no denying it—when Brat won, a press corps that had slept on the race scrambled to see if any other Brats were out there. Carr got the first sustained media attention of the post-Bratt Tea Party field and a run of national TV interviews. Laura Ingraham, who had stumped for Brat, flew in for his largest rally, ripping Alexander apart for advancing the immigration bill, occasionally mentioning Carr.

“I like metaphors,” Carr explained at the bakery. “You know Pink Floyd, right? Another brick in the wall. Sarah Palin was a brick in the wall. Dave Brat was a brick in the wall. Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin—they were bricks in the wall. What’s the mortar? It’s our message.”

Carr got up to talk to more voters, to pay for everything they’d ordered, and then to hotfoot it to a plane that would take him around the state. (He’d raised more than $1.3 million, roughly a dollar for every six Alexander had.) On the way out, he was stopped by a local Republican who’d immigrated legally from Ecuador. He stopped for almost five minutes, refusing to pander or just slip away from the conversation.

“For every dollar that an illegal puts into the economy,” he explained, “two dollars come out of the public trust.”

Then he had to leave. Two hours later, and a two-hour drive away, a much larger crowd packed into a family restaurant in the town of Oak Ridge. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s operation was as slick as Carr’s was homey, with a black bus parked next to campaign signs that aides were plucking out to be distributed at the next stop. Alexander worked through a crush of local Republicans, which included Gov. Bill Haslam, the former mayor of Knoxville, who was happy to share his political base.

Alexander spared no schmaltz. “When I get close to an election,” Alexander said to his crowd, “I look to Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book for inspiration.” He wore plaid. His team distributed plaid signs and stickers. And he whipped out his forgotten plaid book of campaign homilies from his second presidential campaign, 15 years ago.

“I’ve got a new rule,” said Alexander. “It’ll be rule No. 312. If it’s three days before a campaign, don’t believe anything new you hear about anybody. If it’s about me and about guns, remember that I have an A rating from the NRA. If it’s about life, remember I’m endorsed by Right to Life. If it’s about immigration, remember that I voted against amnesty.”

Alexander’s Republicans roared their approval.

“And last week, I flew back to Washington to vote against the president’s immigration bill!”

The year’s other Tea Party targets had lacked this combination of cornpone and relevance. Alexander had cast exactly the wrong votes for the Tea Party, but he was not distant; he did not, like Thad Cochran, seem like he was being propped up to run one last time, after forgetting when the election was.

“I don’t know anybody who’s happy with Washington, D.C.,” said Alexander. “I’m not happy with Washington, D.C. I’m running to change Washington, D.C.!” He would, for example, help a Republican Senate “begin to reverse Obamacare” and “begin to reverse the trend toward a national school board.”

What did that mean? It recalled another issue that Alexander had angered the Tea Party over—his apparent acquiescence to Common Core, the top-down but state-approved education standards. After the rally I asked if he had been referring to Common Core. Not really—that’s not what conservatives resented.

“I think what they resent is the fact that Washington may be requiring states to set specific education standards,” said Alexander, who served as secretary of education after serving as governor of Tennessee. “That’s not Washington’s business.”

Alexander was saying the right words, basically. It was clear why this race had not gone as volcanic as Mississippi’s, or Kansas’, or even Texas’ odd shadowboxing between Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Steve Stockman. Neither Alexander nor Carr was making it personal. Carr said that the wounds suffered by Tea Partiers in Mississippi’s runoff “would take a long time to heal.” But he wasn’t turning his campaign into the revenge mission.

Not long after Alexander’s rally, Carr’s plane delivered him at another bakery—in Knoxville this time. Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield, who had recently compared submission to Obamacare to submission to Nazi butchers, joined Carr for a few rounds of aimless voter chats. The senator rejected any idea that a close race would change Alexander’s behavior.

“Second place is first loser,” he said.

A voter, Lillian Williams, wanted to show Carr a picture she’d taken—a sign she saw on the road to the airport. In white letters on a blue background, it read, “No Mas Lamar.” Carr’s campaign had nothing to do with it, like it had nothing to do with Tea Party Patriots branding the senator as ¡Lamar! But he shook with laughter at the photo, pulling over the local TV crews so they could get a picture of him with the photo.

Alexander finished the race with an outdoor rally in boiling heat. Carr finished with a thank-you at his Murfreesboro headquarters, about 30 minutes south of Nashville. Election Day broke with no real expectation that Carr could win.

“The liberal media in general has this fetish about declaring the Tea Party dead,” said Ben Cunningham, leader of the Nashville Tea Party, taking a midday break. The local Tea Parties had organized early, after being inspired by the people who elected Ted Cruz and beat Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012, but “the cavalry never showed up,” and the media was going to describe this loss as the first clean establishment sweep since 2008.

“I suppose it makes them feel better about the future,” said Cunningham. “But if Lamar survives tonight, it won’t be a surprise. We mounted a good challenge and there’s a chance that Joe can win this. If he does, we’ll be ecstatic. If he doesn’t? That’s OK. We’ll come back into it when Bob Corker runs again.”

But that would take four years. In the short term, Carr would lose. The Carr party, held in one of the smaller ballrooms of an Embassy Suites, featured a bluegrass band but zero TV or computer screens. Curious partisans who wanted news on the night’s other races had to borrow a reporter’s computer or walk a few paces to the party of Jim Tracy, a state senator running against incumbent Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who had encouraged an ex-wife to terminate her pregnancies.

Somewhere up the highway in Nashville, Alexander gave a victory speech that the Tea Party never saw. They also missed the news from Knoxville that Stacey Campfield had gone down in a landslide to a Republican who might make be less inclined to compare the president’s health care program to a Nazi scheme. But they crowded as the bluegrass band played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and cheered when Carr talked about what an important, positive race had just been run. Ultimately, it looked as though he would finish within 10 points of Alexander, who might not even get 50 percent of the vote—a far cry from that Alexander internal poll that was predicting a 29-point landslide.

“While this battle was lost tonight, this wasn’t the most important battle,” Carr said. “It wasn’t the first battle and it won’t be the last battle.”

Then he quoted the Declaration of Independence, and then he walked offstage into a group of believers who wondered who could be primaried next.