NASHVILLE — On the first day of July, Sen. Lamar Alexander delivered a moving eulogy at the funeral of his political mentor, Howard H. Baker Jr., the former Senate majority leader and godfather of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Baker, he said, had “more influence on my life than anyone outside my own family.”
Like Baker, Alexander (R-Tenn.) has had an exemplary career in public service. He was elected to two terms as governor of Tennessee and later served as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary. Twice he sought his party’s nomination for president, though, like Baker, he was unsuccessful. In 2002, he won election to the Senate.
Throughout his career, Alexander has embodied Baker’s style of consensus-building politics — and largely for that reason he is now, at 74, facing tea party opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. But the tea party activists are competing against more than just one sitting senator and a Republican establishment lined up behind him. They are running against Baker’s legacy — a culture of Republican politics that has married conservative principles with pragmatic attitudes about governing.
For half a century, Tennessee voters have elected a succession of Republicans to statewide office who are more problem-solvers than ideologues, consensus-seekers rather than rabble-rousers. The current trio — Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam — all embody in one way or another the Baker tradition.
“They don’t want big government, but they do want government to work,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist and former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, said of the three, “There’s not a hard edge to them.”
Alexander’s chief opponent in a crowded field is believed to be state Rep. Joe Carr, who has the support of many tea party groups in Tennessee and radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham, whose advocacy for Dave Brat is credited with helping the conservative Virginia college professor defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a June primary.
Carr, in a telephone interview, said Alexander is insufficiently conservative, wrong for having supported an overhaul of immigration law and far too willing to work with Democrats and even President Obama. He called Baker a “great statesman” but said this of Baker and Alexander’s style of politics: “I don’t believe it’s suited to the times we’re in.”
Alexander believes Baker’s approach is as vital today as ever. Every Republican in the Senate, he said, is a conservative. “It’s like saying, ‘Who’s the skinniest offensive tackle?’ They’re all over 300 pounds, so what’s the difference?”
He argued that governing a complex country in difficult times requires developing relationships and finding consensus across party lines. The real conflict inside the Republican Party is not conservatives vs. moderates, he said, but rather “between conservatives who think their job is finished when they make a speech and conservatives who want to govern.”
“If you want to fix the debt, you have to introduce a bill and pass it,” he said. “If you want to change Obamacare, you have to introduce a bill and get 60 votes in the Senate and persuade this president to sign it, or the next president.”
Tea party and grass-roots activists have mounted a series of challenges to Republican senators this year. So far they have lost every one. The closest they came was in neighboring Mississippi, where state Sen. Chris McDaniel almost defeated Sen. Thad Cochran, ultimately losing in a contentious runoff.
Carr hopes lightning will strike in Tennessee, as it did for Brat in Virginia. The current betting is that Alexander will survive his primary. If he does, it will be a tribute not only to the attention he has paid to his home base over many years but also to the particular brand of Republican politics that Tennesseans have prized since Baker was first elected.
Over many years, Tennessee has produced a striking number of senators from both parties who have achieved national prominence. Many ran for the presidency or were considered presidential material — Democratic senators such as Al Gore (and before him Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr.) and Republicans such as Fred Thompson and Bill Frist, who rose to majority leader (and, before them, Bill Brock). Past governors have been cut from the same cloth — Republican Don Sundquist and Democrats Ned McWherter and Phil Bredesen.
“What there is [in Tennessee] is a tradition of electing honorable, capable, thoughtful leaders,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who is working for Alexander and Haslam this year. “It happens in Tennessee in a way that it hasn’t in almost any other state, and it’s been going on for decades.”
(Not every politician has been so honorable. Alexander was sworn in as governor three days early in January 1979, with the help of Democrats, in order to force out the corrupt sitting governor, Democrat Ray Blanton, who was selling pardons.)
Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga who is in the middle of his second term as senator, said Tennessee voters “expect their leaders to solve problems” and to be engaged on big issues, no matter which party they are from. “Minus me, we’ve had senators who’ve played a big role in the big issues of the day,” he said. “Tennesseans have come to expect that and to value that. That puts us in a different place.”
Haslam, who was mayor of Knoxville before being elected governor in 2010, got a start in politics as an intern in Baker’s Senate office. One of his jobs was to reply to constituents about Baker’s support for the Panama Canal Treaty. The letters, he recalled, ran 100-1 against the treaty. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why in the world is our guy for this?’ ” he said. “It was actually a great lesson. . . . He honestly thought it was the best thing for the country.”
Tennessee has always been a conservative state, and like others in the South it has made the transition from Democratic to Republican dominance. Haslam is the first Republican governor to serve with a Republican-led legislature. But he said voters have had a history of backing problem-solvers for statewide office. “There’s a practical streak to Tennesseans, and there always has been,” he said. “And people look and say this style of leadership worked.”
Bill Purcell, the Democratic former mayor of Nashville, said, “In general, it’s been a state that sits in the middle — in the middle of the South, in the middle of the battles that raged around it — and tended to think the high middle ground was the place to be.”
Alexander, Corker and Haslam all come from East Tennessee. Carr’s base is around Nashville, in the collar counties where social conservatives have more influence and where the tea party has taken root — the same kind of counties that gave Cantor such trouble around Richmond. It probably is the region where Alexander’s vote count will be lowest.
“You probably have more people who would officially identify with the tea party in the collars and who certainly are sympathetic with the emotions than in any other pocket in Tennessee,” said Tom Ingram, who covered Baker’s 1966 campaign as a young reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and has long been Alexander’s top political strategist.
There are signs that Tennessee Republicanism, like its cousins elsewhere, is changing. Tennessee’s U.S. House delegation includes several members who are more conservative and less given to compromise than the statewide elected officials. In Nashville, Haslam has sparred with the most conservative faction in the legislature, particularly over Common Core educational standards, but he remains widely popular with voters.
What all this portends for the future of Tennessee politics is an open question. Haslam said he believes the tradition established by Baker will endure.
“Tennesseans are very practical people,” he said. “In the end, it’s a very practical . . . state in the way the electorate votes. Number two, it doesn’t hurt to have a road map. People can say: ‘This is how Bob Corker won a race. This is how Bill Haslam won a race.’ ”
Roy Neel, who served as Al Gore’s chief of staff through a series of posts, said there is survey research that suggests tea party legislators are to the right of the Tennessee electorate. He also said the tea party has yet to find the kind of candidate who has prospered in other states.
“Until we see our version of Ted Cruz challenging statewide, we won’t know,” he said.
Neither Carr nor others challenging Alexander have gained the kind of following that Cruz did in Texas in his 2012 Senate campaign.
Carr, who was joined at a rally last week by Ingraham, has a lengthy bill of particulars against Alexander, but the biggest complaint is the incumbent’s support for the bipartisan immigration bill the Senate approved a year ago — “his voting for amnesty,” as Carr put it. With the immigration issue flaring amid an influx of children to the U.S.-Mexico border, Alexander is under heavy attack for that vote.
Alexander said he has no regrets about his vote, although he said he would prefer a step-by-step approach. A comprehensive immigration overhaul was “the only option we had” in the Senate. But he added: “I don’t hear much about immigration in Tennessee. I have more people coming up and thanking me for the vote than I do opposing me for it.”
In his campaign ads, Alexander’s appeal is pitched directly at the GOP base. His first ad featured footage of him confronting Obama on health care, an easy target in Tennessee. His second talks about his opposition to a “national school board.”
The education ad mentions that he worked with President Ronald Reagan to keep Washington’s hands off local schools. It does not mention his tenure at the Education Department or the fact that when asked whether he was on the same page as Haslam, a supporter of Common Core standards, he said he was.
He will spend the final days of the primary campaign on a 40-stop bus tour of the state.
“People who get in trouble in electoral politics usually take someone for granted,” he said. “I think every time you run for election you start from the bottom and work your way back up again. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Alexander said he welcomes tea party supporters into the GOP, “just as we welcomed the Reagan voters, the Goldwater voters, the Moral Majority and the Perot voters.” But he remains fixed on what Baker taught him.
Asked what he thought about the tea party challenges to Senate incumbents this year, he replied: “I think what’s good about the Republican primary process so far is that we’ve nominated incumbents and new nominees who are capable of appealing to independent voters and capable of governing. We won’t win the majority unless we do that. And if we do win the majority and we don’t show the country that we’re capable of governing, as well as making speeches, why, then, the country won’t trust us with the presidency.”