SMYRNA, Tenn. — While Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney acted as master of ceremonies at an event hosted by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s reelection campaign Saturday, tea party activists held an event nearby to denounce the incumbent lawmaker’s voting record.
The contrast may illustrate the split within state Republican ranks now that the party holds a supermajority in the state Legislature, the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of nine U.S. House seats.
“We’re just sick and tired of the Republican establishment telling us we can’t have an open debate on Lamar Alexander’s record,” said Ben Cunningham, founder of Nashville Tea Party and Tennessee Tax Revolt, who served as master of ceremonies at the “counter-rally” attended by perhaps 200 persons from around the state — including a small group from Alexander’s native Blount County.
He said Devaney “is not supposed to endorse in a primary” but is effectively doing so by boosting Alexander’s re-election campaign toward a “coronation” by “trying to intimidate” prospective opponents.
“There is no primary now,” said Devaney when asked about the comments of Cunningham and others at the tea party gathering.
See also The Tennessean, which includes this paragraph:
Jim Jeffries, a spokesman for Alexander, on Saturday night said that more than 500 people showed up for the Alexander campaign event at the Smyrna Air Center to honor Middle Tennessee Republican Party chairmen.
No one has sent a qualifying petition or any notification to the party headquarters indicating an intention to oppose Alexander in the August 2014, GOP primary, he said.
But Devaney added that he “still would be here” if there had been a notification. He accepted Alexander’s personal invitation as a sitting senator, the chairman said, to attend an event officially billed as honoring Republican county chairmen of Middle Tennessee.
“I’m here to honor county chairmen,” said Devaney. “I’m focused on beating Democrats.”
No Democrat has declared as an opponent to Alexander either.
The chairman said “it’s certainly a free country” and the tea party activists were welcome to voice dissent, though he believes “Sen. Alexander is doing a great job.” Devaney said he waved at members of the counter-rally while driving by them and several waved back.
Alexander offered similar comments in a brief encounter with a reporter, giving his take on the tea party gathering as he drove past: “Everybody was having a good time enjoying their First Amendment rights.”
The tea party group assembled in an open field with no shade and temperatures in the mid 90s to wave signs deeming Alexander a RINO — short for “Republican in name only” — and hear speeches criticizing some of his Senate votes, recently including support of immigration reform legislation.
A flier distributed at the event cites Alexander’s vote rating by five conservative groups, including Heritage Action, affiliated with the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage group counted him as voting correctly 41 percent of the time, compared to the Republican Senate average of 67 percent.
The Alexander event was held inside an air-conditioned hangar at Smyra Airport. Before the speech-making and entertainment began, about 250 people were on hand, including several Republican state legislators.
In fact, two state senators, Jack Johnson of Franklin and Steve Dickerson of Nashville, were scheduled to help country songwriter and singer Steve Wariner, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Alexander provide entertainment.
“I disagree with some of his votes,” said Johnson of Alexander. “But there’s a friendship there and so I’m here.”
Johnson scheduled Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul as a speaker at his own fundraiser, saying he appreciates the conservative stance on issues. Paul was cited as an example of what Alexander is not in some of the tea party group’s speechmaking. He had a 95 percent rating in the Heritage Action vote review.
Cunningham said at least three prospective challengers to Alexander have spoken with him. He identified two as Brenda Lenard, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination against Sen. Bob Corker in 2012, and Kevin Kookogey, a former chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party who testified before Congress recently about the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of his application to launch a tax-exempt conservative political group,
Kookogey was among speakers at the tea party event. While not depicting himself as a candidate, he roundly criticized Alexander as a senator who has rejected conservative values – as exemplified by “his amnesty bill” for illegal immigrants while “trying to sooth us with superficial issues like fishing” – a reference to Alexander opposing U.S. Army Corps of Engineers efforts to block fishing near dams on the Cumberland River.
“Lamar Alexander has failed in faithfulness to his oath and he must answer for it,” said Kokogey.