Republican primaries in Tennessee on Thursday night yielded some unexpectedly close outcomes, in part because of such "red meat" conservative issues as illegal immigration and lifting the debt ceiling.
In the most closely watched nomination battle in the Volunteer State, Sen. Lamar Alexander won his expected renomination to a third term. It was an unexpectedly close race. With vastly superior funding and the endorsements of nearly every elected Republican in the state, Alexander won by an unimpressive margin of 52 percent to 41 percent over tea party-backed state Rep. Joe Carr.
Throughout the campaign, Carr hit hardest at Alexander for the senator's vote on the comprehensive immigration package enacted by the Senate and supported by President Barack Obama. Backed by the Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund, the insurgent Carr also strongly criticized the veteran incumbent for opposing a fence along the southern border of the United States and for his efforts to work with Senate Democrats on compromise legislation.
In primaries for the House in the 3rd and 4th Districts that turned out to be "nail biters," the issue of opposing raising the debt ceiling may have been pivotal to the apparent survival of embattled Republican Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais.
Two-termer Fleischmann apparently won renomination to a third term with 50.8 percent of the vote against venture capitalist Weston Wamp, son of former eight-term Rep. Zach Wamp (who relinquished the 3rd District in 2010 to run unsuccessfully for governor).
Elected in an upset as a "tea party favorite" and political outsider, Fleischmann proudly voted this year against raising the debt ceiling despite warnings that failure to do so would lead to world economic chaos and possibly endanger the full faith and credit of the United States.
"The answer to maxing out one credit card is not to max out another," a defiant Fleischmann told reporters in May before voting no on a debt ceiling increase. The Chattanooga-area lawmaker said he would only vote to raise the debt ceiling if doing so was accompanied by major spending cuts.
In his second primary challenge to Fleischmann, Wamp, 27, campaigned as a more centrist Republican in the mold of family friend Alexander. He promised an end to the "evil vs. good" politics he said had paralyzed politics in Washington.
The debt ceiling vote also may have helped save the Republican considered one of the most endangered in the nation. In what was clearly the nastiest race of the night in Tennessee, two-term DesJarlais had been dogged by revelations he had had multiple affairs with patients as a private physician and had urged a former lover and a former wife to get abortions — embarrassing, to say the least, to a congressman who had always campaigned as a strong abortion foe.
Just about every elected Republican in the 4th District and the state had abandoned DesJarlais to support his primary opponent, state Sen. Jim Tracy. With his long list of endorsements and a war chest of $1.4 million (compared to $434,000 for his embattled opponent), Tracy seemed a cinch.
But early Friday, the Associated Press reported that DesJarlais actually topped Tracy in a four-candidate primary by 33 votes. Should absentee and provisional voters follow the trend of the votes counted Thursday night, DesJarlais would have pulled off a major upset.
"Jim should win, but his race will be closer than everyone expects," Chip Saltsman, a former state GOP chairman and national campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, predicted weeks ago. "No matter what he has done, he voted against lifting the debt ceiling. With tea partiers and other grass-roots conservatives, that is the most important vote that has been cast so far."
John Gizzi is the chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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