Tennessee plays growing role in GOP intra-party fight

The stakes are getting higher in the twin contests for control of the U.S. Senate and of the Republican Party itself, and Tennessee increasingly is becoming significant in the battle plans.

This week’s congressional deal to extend the debt ceiling and reopen the federal government for yet a little while has been, to no one’s surprise, a propellant for conservative fervor. The fact that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander is associated with a controversial bit of funding that made it into the final bill surely elevates his profile in the eyes of those seeking to knock down perceived moderates.

The rhetoric on both sides is getting pretty sharp—or blunt, if you will. “People, get this through your thick skulls,” writes Deborah J. Saunders for the moderate point of view. “It was groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth that started this war on Republicans, by threatening primary challenges against those who didn’t drink the defund Kool-Aid.” Said primary challengers too have made their feelings known, as Rep. Joe Carr did on Wednesday night when he said that Alexander had “sold out Tennesseans.”

Even former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has thrown a punch in this direction. Calling on her Facebook fans, she encouraged them to focus on “important House and Senate races” and mentioned Tennessee right there along with Kentucky, South Carolina, and Mississippi. All four of these states have Republican incumbent U.S. Senators up for re-election in 2014 whom the Tea Party would like to see gone, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile, those Republican donors with the deepest pockets are hesitant right now to commit political lifeblood to races where they just can’t be sure of their return on investment. Others are willing to give, as long as they can better influence candidate selection, “in the hopes of avoiding more Todd Akin-like candidates.”

Carr supporter Michael Patrick Leahy told Bloomberg reporters that his candidate doesn’t present the same risk that Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and others did in the past, since the Tennessee Democratic Party seems less than able to put up much resistance. (Aside: Were I Carr, I don’t know if I might not perceive that as a backhanded compliment. But I’m probably over-thinking it.)

Even so, Carr has so far demonstrated that he would have to rely very heavily on outside groups to be cash-competitive with Alexander. With several states in play, and donors sitting tight, it’s not clear whether Carr’s campaign, after an exhausting primary, would sustain such support through the general election.

But let’s just say he did manage to “Beat Lamar,” and then was able to win the seat. And let’s also imagine that things don’t go as swimmingly for his fellow Tea Party nominees in some other states, and the Senate remains in Democratic Party hands. It’s a plausible scenario.

If the Tea Party makes gains in its quest to purge “squishes,” but Democrats retain the Senate majority and perhaps even edge closer in the House, is that the right battle to have won, from a policy-changing perspective? That’s a question Republicans will have to ask themselves.

And it’s quite possible the Tennessee GOP will be close to front-and-center of this internal struggle.

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