Once again, the oh-so-bookish politician cloaked in that red plaid shirt is touring the complex state of Tennessee, trying to walk the complicated line between the populism of the old Democratic South and today’s modern Republican realities. One of the major problems faced by Sen. Lamar Alexander remains the same: He is the kind of Republican that, every now and then, when the mood strikes them, mainstream journalists are willing to describe as “moderate” — especially in contrast with tea-party people and, well, you know who.
As a former taxpayer in that unique region called East Tennessee (and someone who will return there soon), I have seen my share of political advertisements and debates in that region and I know where some of the fault lines can be found. The three “states” of Tennessee (see the stars on the flag) are unique and very different regions and cultures. The state, as a whole, is the kind of place where some Democrats remain culturally conservative and many old-guard Republicans have close, defining ties to country clubs as well as churches.
So, what are the hurdles facing Alexander as he runs for another term? Folks at The Washington Post, GetReligion readers will be shocked to learn, are a bit tone deaf to the cultural, moral and religious elements of this drama. It’s all just politics.
Yes, the ties between Alexander and the late Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., one of the good-guy Republicans of the Watergate era, are at the heart of this story and they should be. Trust me, I get that.
Like Baker, Alexander (R-Tenn.) has had an exemplary career in public service. He was elected to two terms as governor of Tennessee and later served as president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary. Twice he sought his party’s nomination for president, though, like Baker, he was unsuccessful. In 2002, he won election to the Senate.
Throughout his career, Alexander has embodied Baker’s style of consensus-building politics — and largely for that reason he is now, at 74, facing tea party opposition in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. But 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.”
Friends and neighbors, there is more to the current ballot-box tensions between Alexander and state lawmaker Joe Carr than mere tea-party stuff. That “hard edge” quote? That is largely a matter of culture and, in the three states of Tennessee, it’s hard to talk about culture without mentioning religion.