A Tired Tea Party Turns Focus to Tennessee

After exerting so much energy on a failed effort to beat Cochran, conservative groups belatedly back Joe Carr's bid against the popular Lamar Alexander.

Ask Joe Carr, the tea party's favored candidate for the Senate in Tennessee, and he'll tell you he's on a roll.

"Our momentum really launched when Chris McDaniel won his primary," Carr said confidently of his primary campaign against Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. "Then when David Brat won, our support exploded."

Two problems with that. Not only did Chris McDaniel not actually win his primary—he lost the runoff to Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi after finishing first in the initial race—but some of the outside groups whose support Carr hopes to get sound exhausted after the tough slog in the Deep South.

Certainly, Brat showed in his upset win over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia that outside support isn't the end-all, be-all of insurgent primary campaigns. Brat benefited greatly from some name-only endorsements, the kind that Carr is picking up now. That includes conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.

But Carr, who is challenging a longtime senator and former governor, is mostly going it alone. So far, just one Nashville-based super PAC, Citizens for Ethics in Government, has gone up with TV ads on his behalf, and certainly none of Alexander's ads have acknowledged him, as Cantor's did for Brat.

"We fully intended to be active in [the Tennessee] race three weeks earlier than we are now," said Kevin Broughton, the communications director for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. "But we had a little Senate race going on in Mississippi," he said. Broughton, who was still in Mississippi more than two weeks after the runoff, said the group was assessing what resources it could put into Tennessee after dropping more than $1 million into Mississippi.

Carr has twice been to D.C. this year, courting outside groups, and he's had conversations with folks whom he deemed very interested. But many of them have conceded that the protracted campaign in Mississippi robbed them of the resources they needed to fully engage in other Senate primaries, such as the one in Oklahoma last month.

"I've been told on two separate occasions that there was a day on the calendar to watch, earlier in the summer and also in the spring, where outside support would come; those days have come and gone," said one Tennessee Republican who is unaffiliated in the race.

Regardless of whether the groups spend any money, the lack of name endorsements has hurt Carr's campaign. Republicans in the state, many of whom have strong ties to Alexander, have been able to point to that silence as an indication of Alexander's intra-party appeal.

Carr certainly fits the mold of other conservative darlings endorsed by tea-party-style groups this cycle. He's loud and passionate and touts a statehouse record, including supporting deeply conservative immigration measures. His chief argument against Alexander is a timely one: Carr is running ads that tie the senator to his vote for "amnesty" in the form of last year's Senate immigration bill.

Carr still passionately defends his ability to win without the outside groups, but the threat that once had Alexander's camp looking over its shoulders has now all but faded away.

Asked why Carr's race had been relegated so far below McDaniel's, Broughton could only point to the calendar. "And we like to finish what we start," he added.