But in speeches across the Volunteer State, Alexander is in the habit of delivering thinly veiled blasts against the “Washington people” and their “voting score cards” who propose to tell Tennesseans what it means to be a Republican. That’s clearly a shot at conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, two of the groups that have set new purity criteria for Republicans and have been funding primary challenges against many who do not meet their standards.
At every campaign stop, Alexander offers a parable about the future of the Republican Party based on the tale of two famous Tennesseans who went to battle in Texas almost 175 years ago — Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. It is a story about defiance and defeat vs. pragmatism and victory.
Too many of today’s congressional Republicans, Alexander says, are like Crockett, who fought to the death and lost at the Alamo. For his part, Alexander explains, he’d rather be like Houston, who made his stand on the more favorable terrain of San Jacinto.
“He withdrew to a better place — he got some criticism for that — he showed some patience. But then he defeated Santa Anna and won the independence of Texas,” Alexander said, as nearly 100 heads nodded at the Gibson County Farm Bureau meeting last month.
“We remember and honor Davy Crockett’s death at the Alamo. But we celebrate every year Texas Independence Day because of Sam Houston’s victory.”
Independent analysts and strategists in both parties think Alexander has a good chance of winning his primary against a low-profile state representative. He is far ahead in early polling, but Alexander’s willingness to confront the tea party makes it one of the most important bellwether races in the country.
Other more moderate GOP senators have stared down challenges from their right flank, most notably Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2010 and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) in 2012. Those Republicans blazed a trail for others to follow: Run a relentless, well-financed race, attack the opponent’s weakness and shy away from the bipartisan record of the past.
Alexander is following that textbook up to the part where he is required to run away from his record as a moderate or pragmatic conservative. He has mounted a vigorous defense of recent votes in which he joined with Democrats to approve a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws and a farm bill that spends billions on food aid for poor people and some cash payments for farmers and farming conglomerates, including soybean growers here in Trenton.