Tennessee waltz? Poll says Alexander can withstand Tea Party challenge

Updated
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander talks with reporters following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 18, 2013.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander talks with reporters following the weekly Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 18, 2013.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It doesn’t look rocky for Lamar Alexander on Rocky Top just yet.

The Tennessee Republican has been named a top target by conservative groups and drew a primary challenger last week, but an internal GOP poll conducted for the senator’s campaign shows the longtime state politician still enjoys high job approval ratings and wide leads over his potential opponents.

A year away from next August’s Republican primary, a survey from North Star Opinion Research shows Alexander has a 69% job approval rating among GOP primary voters, with 24% disapproving. The Republican also gets high marks with Republican subgroups: 74% of strong Republicans gave him a positive job approval, along with 70% of evangelical Christians.

Alexander is ahead among other critical constituencies: 58% of very conservative voters say they approve of the job he’s done as senator, with just 35% disapproving. Among strong Tea Party supporters, 57% still approve of his performance, compared with 41% who disapprove.

Many state and national GOP strategists are skeptical of attempts to oust Alexander. A popular two-term governor first elected in 1978, he walked more than 1,000 miles across the Volunteer State during his first campaign, wearing a red and black plaid shirt that’s now become synonymous with his image. He later served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and made two short-lived runs for the presidency before being elected to the Senate in 2002.

North Star President Whit Ayers told MSNBC that the survey is indicative of the strong support Alexander’s enjoyed in the Volunteer State for more than three decades.

“There is a group of disgruntled people out there who are not real happy with anyone who’s serving in public office, but at least in Tennessee that group is remarkably small, it is not well-organized and it is no more than a quarter of a Republican primary electorate,” said the GOP pollster.

Alexander’s poll shows he has a nearly three-to-one advantage over any of his possible opponents. Among his two announced opponents, he leads state Rep. Joe Carr, whose campaign roll out last week didn’t draw the best reviews, 64%-22%. Alexander also tops Brenda Lenard, who drew less than 3% against Bob Corker in the 2012 primary, by a 69%-16% margin.

The only current elected official mentioned as an opponent, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, runs closest to Alexander, 62%-23%. The incumbent also leads former Williamson County GOP Chair Kevin Kookogey, 69%-15%. 

Some of Alexander’s recent votes, including backing the Senate bipartisan immigration bill, have infuriated the right, but Alexander took those complaints head on in an op-ed in The Tennessean last week after Tea Party groups in the state had called on him to retire.

“Washington needs more, not fewer, conservatives who know how to govern. Governing means listening, standing up for what you believe in and solving problems to get a result,” Alexander wrote.

Senate Conservatives Fund, who’s running a radio ad this week calling on Alexander to oppose funding for Obamacare even if it means forcing a government shutdown, hasn’t been complimentary of Carr, who has plenty of his own baggage.

Tea Party groups have said they’re planning to hold listening sessions to audition potential challengers for Alexander over the next few weeks. Coalescing behind one candidate is crucial for them–in a state without a runoff, multiple opponents only further boost the senator’s chances of re-election.

Still, releasing a poll this early, and Alexander’s early strategic moves, show he’s taking any re-election challenge seriously. Alexander is also up with a radio ad boasting of his opposition to the president’s health care law, has run another radio ad featuring Sen. Rand Paul, and rolled out support across the congressional delegation.

The North Star Opinion Research poll was conducted for Alexander’s campaign August 19-22 and surveyed 600 likely GOP primary voters.

Tennessee waltz? Poll says Alexander can withstand Tea Party challenge

Updated