Sen. Lamar Alexander has won favor with pundits for his decision to quit his Republican leadership position in January to focus on reaching bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems. But he’s drawing scorn from the GOP’s Tea Party wing, which sees any attempt to accommodate Democrats as a betrayal
“Quite honestly, Alexander’s a nice, gentle man. But the fact of the matter is, he’s not up for the fight,” said Mark Skoda, the founder and chairman of the Memphis Tea Party.
“People are fed up with his machinations to reach out to the quote-unquote other side,” he told The City Paper. “Meanwhile, Democrats are calling the Tea Party everything in the book. It just gets more and more horrific. Lamar should be calling them out, and he’s not.”
It hasn’t helped that, over the weekend, Alexander hosted a re-election campaign fundraiser on Nashville’s Music Row for some of the Senate’s few remaining moderate Republicans — including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Indiana’s Richard Lugar — all of whom are detested by the Tea Party for their willingness to compromise.
“Apparently Al Franken and Harry Reid couldn’t clear their schedules,” one well-known Nashville conservative wrote in an email to The City Paper on the fundraiser.
On Steve Gill’s conservative talk radio show, as Gill asked pointed questions about whether a Republican senator should reach across the aisle, a clearly frustrated Alexander tried to make himself understood.
“I’m a very Republican Republican, as you well know,” said Alexander, who phoned in to the show from Washington. “But if you’re going get 60 votes in the Senate, we’ll have to find some things that Democrats and Republicans agree on.
“I think you can still be a good Republican and look for opportunities to get results. I tried to do that as governor and was successful, and I’d like to try to do more of that here. My voting record is very Republican and will continue to be. I said when I ran for this office that I’d serve with Republican principles and independent attitude, and that’s the way I expect to continue to do it.”
The show’s callers and emailers weren’t buying the senator’s insistence that he was putting country above party, and they pounced on Alexander when he hung up and it was their turn to speak out.
“This guy has got to go,” one said.
“As a Republican’s Republican, doesn’t that make him Obama’s doormat?” another said.
Later, Gill stated the obvious: “There wasn’t a lot of love lost for him in the calls that he got.”
Alexander, who is 71, wouldn’t have to worry about the Tea Party except that he seems to want to keep his options open for 2014 when he’s up for re-election.
When he announced he won’t seek another term as Senate Republican Conference chairman, his party’s No. 3 position, he also said he plans to run for a third Senate term in three years. But most insiders have discounted that statement as not indicating that Alexander has made up his mind yet. If he had said he planned to retire, it would have triggered a free-for-all of politicians scrambling to succeed him, and the senator was trying to prevent that from happening as long as possible.
“It’s what he had to say to keep the chaos to a minimum,” Gill said. “If he said he’s not running, he immediately becomes a lame duck. Whether he’s going to run or not again in 2014, I don’t think is determined by what he’s saying he’s going to do. He may run. He may not run. But what he’s saying now about reaching across the aisle isn’t helping his re-election prospects. If he does run, I think he definitely will face a Tea Party primary challenge.”
Skoda doubts Alexander will run again. He said he thinks the senator is preparing to retire and thinking about his legacy.
“I believe what he’s trying to do is solidify his position in his own mind as a statesman, so he’s taking this very conciliatory approach to Democrats,” Skoda said. “He’s trying to play the elder statesman as he’s coming into the twilight of his career.”
Tom Ingram, a campaign consultant and one of Alexander’s closet confidants, said the senator is “absolutely serious” about running again. As for the Tea Party’s complaints, “That wasn’t a consideration,” he said. “The consideration was as long as you’re in the Senate, make the most of it. If that has political consequences, deal with them when the campaign time comes.
“It’s pretty exciting for those of us around him,” Ingram added. “You’re going to see a reinvigorated, pretty exciting time in his career.”
If Alexander does run and win again, he would be 79 when his third term ended. Asked whether Alexander’s concerned about whether he might become too old to handle his Senate duties, Ingram laughed.
“The fact is you and I both have trouble keeping up with him. Age is a frame of mind and body, and both of his are very healthy. You’ve got to do something when you’re 70 or 80 years old. You can sit in a rocking chair or you can be productive if your mind and body allow it. Lamar’s never been one to sit around much.”