Sunday Column: On Semi-credible Carr vs. Running-scared Alexander

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been wisely running scared since announcing a year ago that he would seek a third term, aware that the recipe for unseating old-school Republicans is now public knowledge and most of the ingredients may be available right here in Tennessee.

The first line of defense in the apparent Lamartian strategy was to keep any potential challenger with a modicum of credibility out of the race. He boldly cast this building of war chest, assembling of allies and other tactics in military terms of “shock and awe” in one Washington interview — tea party critics call it “intimidation” — while simultaneously engaging in diplomacy. He met with prospective opponents that he heard about and talked them out of running — whether by shock and awe, by generous surrender terms or both, one can only speculate.

That first line of defense was bypassed last week as state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, declared himself a candidate. He has a modicum or two of credibility, though not enough to cause too much alarm in the Alexander army. There are other lines of defense before getting to the “shock and awe” counterattack stage.

The most immediate impact on Tennessee’s political landscape of Carr’s announcement, by conventional wisdom, was the elevation of state Sen. Jim Tracy from “probable” winner of the 4th District Congressional seat to “virtually certain” winner. Carr pulled out of the 4th District race to run for the Senate, leaving Tracy in an apparent head-to-head matchup with embattled U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. Tracy’s legislative colleagues were already calling him “congressman” last week.

By conventional wisdom, Tracy should beat DesJarlais, who suffers from a personal past including approval of at least three abortions, in a one-on-one race. With Carr in the picture, there was a reasonable chance that the anti-DesJarlais candidates would split the vote so that the incumbent could emerge victorious.

There are some who proclaimed that if Carr wasn’t a sure winner in a congressional campaign, he can’t be expected to do very well in the big league Senate clash. Actually, Carr, who likens politics to a game of chess, may have made a clever move in getting out of a three-way shootout and into a head-to-head clash.

Tennessee conservatives have been cursed in three-way contests in recent Republican primaries. In fact, the last head-to-head, moderate-conservative clash was back in 2002, when Alexander won his first Senate term over U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant with 53.8 percent of the vote. Arguably, the state has become more conservative since then.

Bob Corker won his Senate primary in 2006 with fewer votes than the combined total of his two opponents, both of whom declared themselves far more conservative than he. Bill Haslam did the same in his 2010 gubernatorial primary.

A conservative-inclined majority among GOP voters is one of the ingredients in the recipe for upsetting an alleged moderate Republican. Is that the case in Tennessee? Maybe we’ll find out.

Of course, Carr must first get all the anti-Alexander people united behind his candidacy. There are rumors of another super-conservative contemplating entry into the contest. If that happens, well, Alexander can relax. If not, well, things could get interesting.

The prospect of a conservative-moderate clash for the Senate has some other ramifications, starting perhaps with Alexander becoming even more inclined to look over his shoulder before casting a Senate vote on something like “defunding Obamacare.”

Also, such a race will draw more attention than anything else in the state, both from outsider national PACs and Tennessee voters and contributors. It will suck money out of other races.

Haslam will benefit because no one will pay attention to his already-presumed re-election. Incumbent Republican legislators will similarly benefit. (Andy Miller, who put a bunch of money into anti-incumbent legislative races in 2012, is a big Carr fan, for example, and can be expected to focus his resources there.)

Carr is still very much an underdog. Several other recipe ingredients would have to be properly blended for the baking of an upset cake. But if they do, why, even Tennessee’s hapless Democrats might be inspired.