The morning after his closer-than-expected victory in Tennessee's Republican primary, Sen. Lamar Alexander said his defeat of a little-known state legislator demonstrated that GOP incumbents don't have to run from their record to beat back the tea party.
"I had a good win, and I pretty well stuck to my guns," he said in a wide-ranging telephone interview.
Alexander became the second senator this week to be held under 50 percent in a primary, winning with 49.7 percent of the vote against 40.5 percent for state Rep. Joe Carr. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) won by a similar margin in his primary Tuesday.
With Alexander's win, Senate Republican incumbents have shut out the Washington-based groups touting themselves as tea party backers, winning all six contested primaries in which some of those groups challenged sitting GOP senators. Alexander said he took away two lessons that he would impart on Republicans running in 2016. "If you have a solution to immigration, it is possible to come home and defend it," he said, having absorbed a large number of attacks from Carr's supporters for his 2013 vote for the Senate's comprehensive rewrite of immigration laws.
In campaign stops across the state, Alexander made a point of bringing up his controversial vote because he wanted to explain his position rather than leaving it entirely up to the other side to define it.
The second lesson: "Run a Colin Powell-type campaign. Have a clear objective and use overwhelming force."
By July 18, Alexander had raised nearly $6.4 million and spent $5.2 million, according to federal reports. At that point Carr had barely eclipsed $1.3 million raised, and had yet to spend $1 million.
"Congrats Lamar. You spent a lot of money to tell [Tennessee] voters you are not for #amnesty. Now show them you meant it," Laura Ingraham, the conservative talk radio host, wrote on Twitter Thursday night.
Ingraham played a key role in galvanizing opposition to Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who on June 10 became the first sitting House majority leader to ever lose a primary, a race in which his opponent focused on immigration and Cantor's constant presence around the country on the fundraising circuit.
Ingraham tried to replicate the Cantor phenomenon with Carr, but Alexander was never going to get pegged with the out-of-touch label in the Volunteer State. He spends an inordinate amount of time there and the last two weeks he crisscrossed the state on a bus tour.
Still, given the closer-than-expected results, Alexander needed to spend every dollar and trek every mile across the state, or else he might have lost. "The composition of the primary is so different than when I was first elected governor in 1978," he confided.
Back then about 250,000 people voted in the Republican primary, and 700,000 voted in the Democratic primary. By 2002, when he first won his Senate seat, about 400,000 voted in his GOP primary victory (54 percent of vote) over a congressman from west Tennessee.
Thursday, almost 700,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican primary and less than 250,000 voted in the Democratic primary. Those new Republican voters predominantly hail from west Tennessee, where they were formerly conservative Democrats; now, they are among the most angry voters toward President Obama and establishment Republicans.
Alexander's pollster, Whit Ayres, had repeatedly put out polls showing the incumbent leading by more than 25 points, but each one had him the low 50s and had a large bloc of undecided voters. It appears that almost every late-breaking voter went to Carr or one of the five other challengers on the ballot.
For that, Alexander credited his opponents with harnessing the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America appearing on the Mexican border, which inflamed passion around the immigration issue.
"It was not the major issue until the last two to three weeks. The border crisis lit a fire under it," Alexander said. By Thursday, he said, immigration was matching Obama's health law and the federal debt as issues that conservatives cared about.
He declined to run any negative ads on television or radio largely because of the lessons from Cantor, who ran a heavily negative campaign on air against a challenger almost no one in the Richmond area had heard of. "He spent a lot of money making his opponent well known early on," Alexander said.
Instead, he ran a bounty of positive ads with testimonials from the likes of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Alexander's win stands out from other convincing wins by Senate Republicans against primary challengers, notably Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2010, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2012 and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this spring: Those three used the "Powell Doctrine" of overwhelming force, but they also used sharp negative campaigns against opponents and won by large margins.
Alexander said he's not concerned about his margin, because he comes from a conservative state, ran against six challengers and came away with half the votes on a night when the race was called early.
"If you win by 10 points," he said, "that's a big win."