TRENTON, Tenn. -- As he seeks a third term in the U.S. Senate, Lamar Alexander is doing something few other incumbent Republicans have tried recently: Instead of running scared of the tea party, he's running hard against it.
Alexander hardly mentions tea party icons such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, nor does he call out the hard-right conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America that forced Republicans to pursue the politically disastrous strategy that led to the recent federal government shutdown.
But in speeches across the Volunteer State, Alexander is in the habit of delivering thinly veiled blasts against the "Washington people" and their "voting scorecards" who propose to tell Tennesseans what it means to be a Republican. That's clearly a shot at conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, two of the groups that have set new purity criteria for Republicans and have been funding primary challenges against many who do not meet their standards.
At every campaign stop, Alexander offers a parable about the future of the Republican Party based on the tale of two famous Tennesseans who went to battle in Texas almost 175 years ago -- Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. It is a story about defiance and defeat vs. pragmatism and victory.
Today's congressional Republicans, Alexander says, are like Crockett, who fought to the death and lost at the Alamo. For his part, Alexander explains, he'd rather be like Houston, who made his stand on the more favorable terrain of San Jacinto.
"He withdrew to a better place -- he got some criticism for that -- he showed some patience. But then he defeated Santa Anna and won the independence of Texas," Alexander said, as nearly 100 heads nodded at the Gibson County Farm Bureau meeting last month.
"We remember and honor Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo. But we celebrate every year Texas Independence Day because of Sam Houston's victory."
Independent analysts and strategists in both parties think Alexander has a good chance of winning his primary against a low-profile state representative. He is far ahead in early polling, but Alexander's willingness to confront the tea party makes it one of the most important bellwether races in the country.
Other more-moderate GOP senators have stared down challenges from their right flank, most notably Sens. John McCain of Arizona in 2010 and Orrin Hatch of Utah in 2012. Those Republicans blazed a trail for others to follow: Run a relentless, well-financed race, attack the opponent's weakness and shy away from the bipartisan record of the past.
Alexander is following that textbook up to the part where he is required to run away from his record as a moderate or pragmatic conservative. He has mounted a vigorous defense of recent votes in which he joined with Democrats to approve a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws and a farm bill that spends billions on food aid for poor people and some cash payments for farmers and farming conglomerates, including soybean growers here in Trenton.
Behind the scenes, as the Cruz-led strategy to shut down the federal government went on this month, Alexander emerged as the key behind-the-scenes Republican finding a path to reopen the government and increase the federal debt limit to avoid a potential default. Deputized by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Alexander worked with a bipartisan group that paved the way for the final pact, making good on the promise he delivered to the farmers in this tiny west Tennessee town a month earlier.
"If all we do is stand around handing each other scorecards, we won't get anything done," Alexander said. "That's why, in the current health-care debate, I'm not in the shut-down- the-government crowd. I'm in the take-charge-of-the-government crowd, and get something done."
Unlike his state's other recent senators -- including three presidential candidates and a vice president -- Alexander's national ambitions were both obvious and unrealized before he got to the Senate, having run twice for president after serving two terms as governor and as education secretary. Elected to the Senate in 2002, he began edging his way up the leadership ladder until two years ago when he abruptly resigned as Republican Conference chairman.
The stated purpose was liberation from toeing the party line, so that he could pursue more bipartisan work.
All that has infuriated people like Ben Cunningham, the founder of the Nashville Tea Party and a leading anti-tax advocate in the state for the past decade.
"I don't think anybody has any illusion about how difficult it is going to be to beat Lamar," Cunningham said. "A lot of things have to come together."
He and other Tennessee hardline conservatives met last fall at a tea party gathering in Cincinnati with activists who in 2012 helped defeat incumbent Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and with strategists who propelled Cruz to an upset victory in the Texas primary. The first counsel was to make sure Alexander got into a one-on-one battle so that the conservative vote wouldn't splinter, which could let Alexander win with just a plurality (as did Gov. Bill Haslam in 2010 and Sen. Bob Corker in 2006 in GOP primaries).
The collection of tea party groups settled on state Rep. Joe Carr, whose first ad this week accused Alexander of working "behind closed doors trading favors" on the bill to reopen the government.
He opposes the immigration bill that Alexander helped negotiate and the Senate's version of the farm bill. A state representative from about 40 miles southeast of Nashville, Carr has never spent more than $125,000 in a campaign. After dabbling with running in a House race, Carr instead leapt into the Senate race but raised just $52,000 in the third quarter.
He frankly admitted that his candidacy is reliant on outside conservative groups jumping into the race. Those groups told Carr they would be willing to spend up to $5 million if Carr can convince them he has a chance to win.
"For us to be able to have an opportunity to get that money in play so we can be competitive, we have to raise our own money," he said. "It's our intention to raise as much money as we can to prove to the outside groups across the country that this is a race of national interest."
In his west Tennessee swing last month, Alexander clutched the coattails of the local congressman, Rep. Steve Fincher, 40, a onetime gospel-singing farmer whom GOP leaders touted in 2010 as the perfect candidate to embody the tea party revolution. A first-time candidate, Fincher won that race and became the first non-Democrat to represent the region since Crockett lost his bid for re-election in 1834.
Three years later, Fincher's conservative credentials are questioned by some who point to his falling Heritage voting scorecard, the result of Fincher's support for the farm bill. A local county commissioner may challenge him in next year's primary. Still boyish looking, with a preacher's charm, Fincher began his introduction of Alexander to the local Trenton farmers with an apology -- for all the bad things he used to say about the establishment figure when he wasn't in office.
"I used to really get down on you for some of the votes you take, but now I have to take some of them, too," Fincher said, defending his own record of voting for local interests, like the farm bill, even if it meant opposing conservative groups. "The crazies on both sides are causing problems, and we've got to make sure we're doing what the folks here want to do."
That night Fincher -- who was 1 year old when Alexander first ran for governor in 1974 -- led Alexander through Martin for that town's 20th anniversary Soybean Festival parade, with the 73-year-old senator walking the mile-long route in his customary red-and-black plaid shirt.
This is the part of the onetime border state that has always been more firebrand, making it potentially fertile ground for anti-Alexander votes. In the Civil War, this region stayed allied with the South and has traditionally stuck with Democrats, while the eastern half of the state allied with the North and has been Republican ever since. That's why so many of Tennessee's GOP figures -- from Alexander to Howard Baker to Haslam to Corker -- have been more establishment-based, moderate conservatives.
It's also the distinction between Crockett, whose political years were rooted in west Tennessee, and Houston, who was raised outside Knoxville and whose political career was rooted there.
When it comes to Tennessee's favorite sons, Carr doesn't flinch. Crockett and his brigade made victory possible for Houston, serving as an inspiration that propelled them to victory -- something that today's political system needs. "Some men may have to give up their political lives for the sake of our country, and, I think, some men and women may be able to carry on, but at the end of the day, it's the principles, the values that made this country great as embodied by Tennessee and Texas that need to be carried forward," Carr said.
Alexander finds such talk foolhardy.
"We have got to remember, whether it's the health-care debate, whether it's the farm bill, whether it's the immigration bill, that we have to have some patience, more like Sam Houston, in solving these problems if we're ever going to get a result."