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Tenn. GOP senator Alexander tries to stare down Tea Party

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Remember the Alamo

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a moderate Republican, says he'd rather be like Sam Houston than Davy Crockett, who died in the Texas battle.

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By The Washington Post
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 6:30 p.m.

TRENTON, Tenn. — As he seeks a third term in the 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.

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 those 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 at the Alamo — Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. It's about defiance and defeat versus pragmatism and victory.

Congressional Republicans, Alexander says, are like Crockett, who fought to the death. For his part, Alexander explains, he'd rather be like Houston, who “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,” he said, as nearly 100 heads nodded at a farm bureau meeting.

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 polling, and his 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, but shied away from a bipartisan record.

Alexander is not running away from his record as a 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 the poor and some cash payments for farmers.

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