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SMYRNA, Tenn. — Tennessee Tea Party groups and some other hard-right groups are all dressed up and raring to have a go at toppling U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2014 Republican primary.
But even as 200 of the senator's critics rallied over the weekend in Smyrna outside an Alexander event and denounced his voting record as insufficiently conservative, it's not just who's going to be their prom -- or primary -- date.
Several would-be favorites, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, already have declined the honor. World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Glenn Jacobs, a libertarian, was talked up recently but hasn't ruled a bid in or out.
Still, Ben Cunningham, founder of the Nashville Tea Party, said Saturday that "there are a number of people who are very seriously considering it."
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West cited four possible or "definite" challengers to Alexander, whom West and other critics call a RINO (Republican in Name Only).
Tea party groups plan to begin auditions in regional forums in late August and into September. The conservatives believe national groups will help fund a sound challenger.
Beleaguered Democrats haven't got a candidate at this point.
West declined to name names, but Cunningham cited Kevin Kookogey, a former Williamson County GOP chairman, as a possibility.
Kookogey recently testified before the U.S. House about the Internal Revenue Service slow-walking his application for tax-exempt status for a nonprofit political/educational group.
Cunningham complained that Alexander "talks conservative, but we don't pay him or hire him to talk, we pay him to vote. And when he votes, he votes like a northeast liberal Republican.
"We're sick and tired of it," Cunningham said. "And we're sick and tired of the Republican Party establishment saying you can't have an open debate on Lamar's record."
Having seen similar hard-right insurgents defeat colleagues like Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, over the last four years, the 72-year-old Alexander isn't taking any chances -- he has initiated a powerhouse re-election effort within his own party.
A two-term Senator, former governor and U.S. Education Secretary, Alexander in December rolled out a list of GOP endorsements. It included Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Bob Corker, six of the state's seven Republican congressmen, Ramsey, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and 13 former state GOP chairmen.
He's got some $3 million in cash on hand. He's raising more. And he's already running ads.
Alexander last week said he thinks things are going well.
"The last public surveys I've seen ... showed I had a slightly higher approval rating from people aligned with the tea party than I did even with the Republicans," Alexander said. He cited a May poll by Vanderbilt University showing him with a 53 percent general job approval rating, with 60 percent support from Republicans and 62 percent from self-identified tea partiers.
The overall poll had a 4 percent margin of error. The margin of error was higher in sub categories.
"I'm just going to do the best I can as a senator and respect the right of everybody else to believe whatever they want," Alexander said.
He touted the "hundreds of conservative Middle Tennessee Republicans" who attended his rally Saturday.
"It was a great afternoon. Of course I respect the First Amendment rights of those who disagree," he said.
In an interview, Haslam said he doesn't now see Alexander having a significant challenger.
"I hear all the talk, but I think Lamar has a solid record and I don't quite see where the challenge would come from given the support he has and his record," Haslam said.
Ramsey recently told reporters he gets "a dozen emails a week asking me to run."
"The Tea Party groups are out there looking for an opponent, and I think they'll have a hard time finding one against Lamar," Ramsey said.
Alexander recently began airing an ad featuring his legislation blocking U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' attempts to halt fishing below Corps-operated dams during water releases.
That included a news clip from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a co-sponsor, speaking favorably about Alexander. Paul aides later said it wasn't a specific endorsement of Alexander's re-election bid and Alexander said he hasn't asked for an endorsement.
The special guest at Alexander's Saturday "salute" to Middle Tennessee county Republican chairmen was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won Tennessee's 2012 GOP presidential primary with the help of Christian conservatives.
Huckabee told attendees he considers Alexander "one of the best friends I've got in politics."
He described Alexander as "someone who knows how to govern," who "led this state [as governor] to some of its most significant achievements in business and industry," and who helped people understand the importance of education.
Critics line up
Tea party groups have plenty of gripes about Alexander, from his 2009 decision to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor to his support of immigration overhaul and for cosponsoring a bill allowing states to collect taxes on Internet sales.
Explaining his yes vote on Sotomayor, Alexander noted he objected in 2005 when Democrats filibustered President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts. He said he was being consistent with his 2005 stance.
On the sales tax issue, Alexander has portrayed himself as supporting states' rights.
During Saturday's event, West outlined those votes, asking attendees to "find [Alexander] innocent of being a progressive Republican or guilty of being a RINO."
"Guilty!" the crowd roared as each vote was described.
Tea party critics cite Alexander's low rankings by five conservative groups on positions they support.
But the Alexander campaign cites a conservative voting record, such as an A ranking from the National Rifle Association and 100 percent ratings from National Right to Life and the National Federation of Independent Business.
The campaign says in 2012, Congressional Quarterly found Alexander voted with the majority of Republican senators 83 percent of the time.
Tested in fire
Last week, Alexander and others discussed a new book by a one-time aide, Keel Hunt.
It lays out the fateful six or so hours in January 1979 when Alexander and powerful Democrats all reluctantly agreed that Alexander, who'd won the 1978 election, should be sworn in three days early to prevent then-Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton from signing additional pardons in the midst of a clemency-for-cash scandal.
That experience helped frame his two terms in office and approach to governing, Alexander said.
"It would be good for the country if every United States senator serving today had a six-hour boot camp like I had for how to get along. ... The country would be better off," Alexander said.
Norm Ornstein, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute said Alexander "has always been viewed as one of those guys who is a problem solver looking for ways to work with others."
But it's clear, Ornstein noted, that "he's in some fear of being primaried."
At Saturday's tea party rally, Kookogey didn't say he would be a candidate, but he had plenty of criticism for the senator.
"Lamar Alexander has failed in faithfulness to his oath and he must answer for it," he said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...