Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) easily won his primary on Thursday, defeating a conservative challenger and effectively ending the tea party’s hopes of unseating a Republican senator for the third straight election cycle.
Alexander beat state Rep. Joe Carr, a conservative insurgent who ran hard to his right on immigration. Five other candidates also fell short.
It seems that after seeing some longtime colleagues get picked off in two consecutive elections, Republican senators may have finally found the formula to keep primary competitors from defeating them: Take tea party upstarts seriously. And take them on early.
The series of establishment candidate wins have bolstered Republican hopes of seizing the Senate majority in a year when they have no margin for error. Being stuck with flawed tea party nominees in Kentucky or Mississippi would have imperiled the GOP's quest to gain the six seats they need to control the chamber in 2015.
With about half of the vote tallied, Alexander led Carr 51 percent to 39 percent.
The senior senator's campaign was a model in advance preparation. He kicked off his re-election bid in late 2012 with the support of the state's entire Republican congressional delegation -- effectively either scaring away or winning the loyalty of top potential foes.
"The senator has been someone who has been tilling the home soil," said Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer.
Party strategists were also watching the heavily conservative 4th congressional district on Thursday, where Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R) was trying to defy the odds by winning renomination. DesJarlais, a physician, was set back by the 2012 revelations that he engaged in extramarital affairs with patients and encouraged his now ex-wife to get abortions despite running as an antiabortion rights candidate. He was locked in a close race against state Sen. Jim Tracy.
Meanwhile, in the 3rd district, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R) narrowly defeated challenger Weston Wamp. Fleischmann also defeated Wamp back in 2012.
In the Senate race, Alexander, a former governor and presidential candidate, leaned on his deep network of donors. He spent more than $5 million through late July -- more than five times as much as Carr.
Never a cause for national tea party groups, Carr was largely ignored by them. He received a late endorsement from Sarah Palin and some help on the campaign trail from conservative radio host and fellow immigration hardliner Laura Ingraham.
Ingraham helped propel college professor Dave Brat over Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in the biggest primary upset of the year. Like Carr, Brat ran hard to the right on immigration. But Alexander's vote for voting for a sweeping immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants didn't move enough voters to topple him.
In a Wednesday interview, Ingraham acknowledged there are limits to what she can do, and argued that wins and losses only tell part of the story.
"I’ve given him a bigger platform to speak from and I think that has helped him," she said of Carr. "But I’m not the candidate. I’m concerned about the future of the country and believe the establishment is misreading the pulse of the electorate. Just because John Boehner or Lindsey Graham survive primaries doesn’t mean people think things are going well."
Alexander spent Thursday evening doing a few local television interviews and then went to his home to have dinner with his family. Tom Ingram, his political adviser, said the senator campaigned hard, including during a bus tour in the closing weeks.
"There were a few protesters, some of them paid, but it was a positive reception," he said.
Alexander, who will be heavily favored to win a third term in November, is the last of the six Republican senators who drew tough primary challengers this year to emerge with a win.
Sen. Pat Roberts's win in Kansas on Tuesday was yet another lost opportunity for frustrated conservatives. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a member of the GOP leadership, easily outpaced his chief tea party challenger in March, as did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in May. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who, as with Roberts, was questioned about residency issues and his long tenure in Congress, had a tumultuous run but won a runoff election in late June. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also won his primary that month.
Each of those unsuccessful Senate primary challengers believed they could use the anti-Washington sentiment evident among Republican base voters and their rival’s lengthy voting record to win, but ultimately found it difficult to build a majority GOP coalition. It's a marked contrast with the conservative experience during the 2010 election cycle, when a group of hard charging tea party candidates, such as Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah), emerged victorious in primaries, with Lee ousting Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a three-term incumbent.
But while Rubio and Paul were blue chip recruits, this year's class featured more than its fair share of flawed candidates.
Physician Milton Wolf, who lost to Roberts, cracked jokes about X-rays of gunshot victims on Facebook. Businessman Matt Bevin, who was blown out by McConnell, attended a pro-cockfighting rally and once praised the TARP program he now condemns. Even Chris McDaniel, the darling of national tea party groups, has risked his reputation by refusing to concede more than a month after he lost to Cochran.
This year, the tea party’s high profile wins came in House races, where they defeated Cantor and Rep. Ralph Hall, a 91-year-old Texan, in GOP primaries. Conservatives also scored a win in the open U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, with the victory of Ben Sasse -- though Sasse's occasional positions at odds with the political right, including past support for the Medicare Part D drug benefit, has led some to question how much of a tea party candidate he really is.
Alexander's race received a lot of national attention -- especially after Cantor's loss. But his team was always optimistic that if it stuck to the script, he would prevail.
“There was a lot more noise than reality to this contest," said Ingram, his political adviser.