Responses to state Rep. Joe Carr's decision to switch his candidacy from Tennessee's 4th District Republican primary to the U.S. Senate flooded inboxes Tuesday, and few of them offered support for the new candidate's move.
Carr, a Republican from Lascassas, revealed his plans to challenge Sen. Lamar Alexander in next year's 2014 Senate primary in an appearance on a Nashville radio station. He said his decision was made after he received "literally hundreds" of requests from supporters to abandon his bid to unseat Rep. Scott DesJarlais and set his sights on an even higher seat.
"Lamar is popular, but there is a disconnect with his popularity to the way he has voted," Carr said.
Carr sought to brand himself as a conservative alternative to Alexander's moderate positions on recent issues. In a news release announcing his bid, he name-dropped current U.S. senators whom he envisioned modeling himself after, including Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Mike Lee, R-Utah.
The representative also acknowledged the uphill battle a bid against a well-backed, well-known incumbent would be.
"We're taking on a goliath, and we know we are," Carr said.
The acknowledgement proved valid. By the time Carr's voice was echoing across state airwaves, his opponent had already beat him to making the case for his re-election in the media.
Penning an op-ed published by The Tennessean Tuesday, Alexander responded to a recent tea party letter suggesting he retire "with dignity" and spare Tennesseans a willingness to embrace compromise in key Senate votes. The senator provided a laundry list of problems he was seeking to fix before summarizing how compromise fit his political philosophy.
"I learned to count in Maryville city schools, so I know that if you only have 45 votes and you need 60 senators to get something important done, like balancing the budget and fixing the debt, then you have to work with other people," Alexander wrote. "That is, if you really care about solving the problem, if you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech."
By announcing a bid to unseat Alexander, a former two-term governor of Tennessee, Republican presidential candidate, U.S. secretary of education and two-term senator, Carr will be forced to look to conservatives who aren't a part of the state's GOP political establishment. The reality became apparent shortly after his plans were revealed.
Chip Saltsman, who had signed on to Carr's congressional campaign as an adviser, quickly emailed members of the media after Carr's announcement, informing them of his decision to not continue with Carr's Senate bid. A former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Saltsman had already given an endorsement to Alexander in February.
"I signed up to help you run for Congress, not the Senate," Saltsman said in a letter written to Carr.
Saltsman later said Carr had informed him of his plans Monday and that he immediately made his decision to leave the campaign. In an interview with Nooga.com, Saltsman said lawmakers like Carr would not have been afforded a chance to serve as Republicans in the state Legislature had it not been for Alexander's previous work in the state.
"Let's be honest, it wasn't that long ago when Republicans were in the minority in Tennessee," he said. "Lamar, along with some other people, was able to get some things done and give people an opportunity to see that Republicans weren't so bad … and he was doing it when nobody was a Republican."
John Geer, chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt University, said he viewed Saltsman's departure as a signal that Carr would face difficulty gaining support from connected Republicans who could provide backing.
"Saltsman came out immediately supporting Alexander, and in my opinion, that says a lot," Geer said. "Saltsman's a serious player in Tennessee politics, and he didn't hesitate. He made an immediate move, and that underscores the problem that going up against a popular incumbent faces."
Carr, who reported $275,000 cash-on-hand for his 4th District campaign in the most recent quarter, trails Alexander more than tenfold—Alexander reported $3.1 million on-hand at the same time. The senator has also already spent roughly $1 million on his campaign, including a $180,000 ad buy for a television commercial that ran in state markets last month.
In comments made in an Associated Press report, Carr said he anticipated needing to raise $5 million.
To achieve the amount, the representative would likely be forced to look outside of Tennessee, to deep-pocketed political action committees focused on unseating incumbents. One of those groups, the Senate Conservatives Fun, indicated willingness last week to explore the idea of assisting a more conservative challenger to Alexander and cited its spending of more than $16 million on U.S. Senate races in the most recent cycle.
But Matt Hoskins, executive director for the group, issued a statement Tuesday morning expressing doubts about Carr.
"We don't know a lot about Joe Carr yet, but we're a little concerned," Hoskins said in an emailed statement. "If he couldn't get traction in the House race, he probably won't get traction in the Senate race, either. If Carr doesn't catch fire and a more compelling candidate enters the race, he could be the spoiler that helps re-elect Lamar Alexander."
No other Republican candidates have officially declared bids to challenge Alexander, although tea party groups are continuing with plans to hold multiple sessions to vet possible opponents.
Carr's exit also changes the current of the 4th District primary, which is now a two-man race between DesJarlais and state Sen. Jim Tracy. Tracy, a Republican who has run for Congress before, was outraising both Carr and DesJarlais combined at the time of Carr's announcement, with more than $656,000 in cash-on-hand to fuel his campaign for the next year.
In comparison, DesJarlais, who is still battling the fallout from details regarding affairs with patients and support for his ex-wife's abortions during a decade-old divorce, reported $88,000.
Geer said at the end of Tuesday that he saw Tracy benefitting the most from Carr's plans to switch.
"I think the winner is Jim Tracy," he said. "By being able to go one-on-one with DesJarlais, it gives him a real advantage with the money he's raised and the problems for the congressman."
Both Tracy and DesJarlais issued statements Tuesday committing to running people-focused campaigns.
Still, some members of the state political scene weren't happy with any aspects of Tuesday's developments. Roy Herron, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said the Senate race would now be a "race to the bottom of fear and hate" but made no mention of his party fielding a candidate.
"Women and children, workers and the middle class, have much to fear from these two candidates and much to hate about their records," Herron said in an emailed statement.
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