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Why Lamar Alexander won’t be 2014’s Richard Lugar

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Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is ramping up his 2014 reelection bid with 2012 barely in the rearview mirror. The timing is no coincidence, with the past two election cycles illustrating that early action is the most effective way for vulnerable Republicans to deter primary threats.

To wit: Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who charted starkly different paths in 2012. Hatch will return to Congress in 2013, while Lugar will not.

"It sends a message that Tennessee Republicans have their house in order,” said a Republican close to Alexander. “We're not going to stand around slinging mud at each other the way Republicans in other states have."

Alexander appears to be paving a road to reelection that looks more like Hatch’s effort than Lugar’s. He kicked off his campaign over the weekend with robust Republican support, announcing a team that includes the state’s Republican governor and every Republican member of the state’s congressional delegation, save for embattled Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R).

Alexander may not be as vulnerable as Hatch and Lugar were last cycle. But the second-term senator isn’t taking any chances, wagering that a strong early showing will scare away any potential threats on his right.

It’s a strategy that’s produced results for other Republicans. After witnessing his GOP colleague Robert Bennett fall at the hands of conservative activists in 2010, Hatch laid the groundwork early for his 2012 campaign, extending olive branches to conservative activists and building an army of supporters to become delegates at his party's nominating convention.

It worked. Hatch scared Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) away from challenging him and easily dispatched of lesser-known former state senator Dan Liljenquist (R).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was faced with a similar situation in 2010, with conservative activists aching to defeat him lined up behind former congressman J.D. Hayworth (R). McCain pummeled Hayworth over the airwaves early and often, and ultimately defeated him badly.

By contrast, Lugar was slow out of the gate, never reached out to conservatives, and was viewed as remarkably out of touch with his state by the end of his primary campaign. He was warned by national strategists about the perils of failing to prepare early.

In some ways, Alexander’s situation is different from Lugar, Hatch, or McCain. He’s not facing a convention populated by party activists and has no clear GOP opponent in his sights. But his record -- including his vote for TARP -- could leave him vulnerable to a threat from the right.

The anti-tax Club For Growth, which was instrumental in defeating Lugar, has assigned Alexander a lifetime score in the ballpark of the Hoosier and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whom the organization has identified as a potential 2014 target. But the group says it isn't focused on Alexander right now.

“We are not focused on Tennessee’s Senate race at this time,” said Club spokesman Barney Keller.

Part of what would make a strong conservative challenge to Alexander difficult is the lack of an obvious alterantive. The only other GOP statewide elected officials in Tennessee aside from Alexander are behind him, limiting the pool of potential challengers.

Alexander’s team is confident about his standing. The senator commissioned an internal poll last spring showing nearly seven-in-10 conservative voters had a favorable impression of him. Nearly six-in-10 voters overall had a favorable impression of the senator, suggesting he may also be well-positioned for the general election. Former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen recently announced that he won’t challenge Alexander, taking a potentially formidable challenger off the table.

For his part, Alexander intends to remain in close contact with voters in the state as the cycle progresses. That would be a departure from Lugar, who not only was ill-prepared to deal with the rise of his GOP opponent, but was also hamstrung by a story that dragged on for months about whether he even maintained a residence in Indiana.

"I think recently we've started ascribing losses or problems to things that are much more sophisticated than staying in touch with voters, which is really the most important thing any politician can do to earn reelection,” the Republican close to Alexander said.

As we wrote last week, unseating an incumbent senator in a primary is a difficult feat. But it happens. And no Republican wants to be the 2014 cycle’s Lugar. Alexander is already working hard to make sure he isn’t next.