Washington Post: In TN, it’s tea party versus Howard Baker’s legacy

The Washington Post has an interesting (and lengthy) look at Tennessee’s ongoing U.S. Senate campaign and the state’s voting traditions. An excerpt:

(In Tennessee,) 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.”

… 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.”

… 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 or 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.”