Retention Election: Given His Poll Numbers, and Invisible Opponent, is Alexander Running Against Himself?

Lamar Alexander isn't a judge, but his re-election campaign is looking more and more like a retention election. Given the underfunded and invisible campaign of his opponent, Joe Carr, the campaign looks like Alexander is running against himself.

Any time an incumbent's favorability rating drops below 50 percent it spells trouble, and in Sen. Alexander's case his negatives are not being driven by negative campaign ads by his opponent. His opponent's ads are virtually non-existent. The low approvals are being driven by Alexander himself and his Senate colleagues. Two polls last week have Alexander below 50 percent. One from a Democratic opponent might be suspect, but Alexander's alma mater, Vanderbilt, also had him below 50 percent in a poll.

I'm told there is another a poll requested by some out-of-state Super PACs to judge Carr's viability and it has Carr closer than you would think possible. And he is reportedly ahead in some areas of West Tennessee. Take that with a grain of salt, but it is not out of line with the other polls.

Alexander's actions of late seem, well, bizarre.

Why would any Republican running in a primary in Tennessee, who claims to be a conservative, co-sponsor a bill with California's Democratic U.S. Sen. Diane Fienstein? She's the principal architect of all Senate gun control bills. But Alexander has joined with her to pass a law to forbid cell phone calls on airplanes. In what universe does a conservative decide that the government needs to get between a private business (an airline) and its customers? The airlines will do what their customers want; we don't need the government to interfere. Even if you don't want to be bothered on your trips back and forth to Washington.

How many unnecessary laws are there, prompted by the personal pique of a legislator?

Here, locally, we have a situation where retired federal judges are being trucked in to handle case loads because of a vacant judgeship. Knoxville attorney Pam Reeves is closing out her practice and sits waiting to be confirmed. So Alexander puts a hold on confirming federal judge appointments in order to play an inside-the-beltway game with Majority Leader Harry Reid. Any consideration of the situation back home takes a back seat to scoring points in the Senate club.

Alexander can blame Reid, but Reeves was on a consent calendar for automatic appointment and Alexander objected so Republicans could make a point about the changes in the filibuster rule.

It certainly doesn't do Alexander any good to have his chief of staff arrested for child pornography. One wonders if Alexander's familiarity with his staff is like his familiarity with the folks back home—sketchy and disconnected.

The National Journal reports that the Club for Growth doesn't think state Rep. Carr is a viable candidate. Don't know if that assessment was made and reported before the recent polling or not. Carr has done little to show himself an outstanding candidate, but given his money situation maybe he can't. There are two big questions in this race: Will the Super PACs come in? And does Carr have to do anything other than not be Alexander?

I think the answer to the second question is that Carr will have to demonstrate that he is a credible person capable of handling the job. People may be ready to vote no on Alexander's retention, but they have to be reassured that the alternative is not a mistake.

I think the thing that makes conservative PACs reluctant to take on Alexander is his $3 million in the bank and the knowledge he can raise more if need be. That also makes the prospect of a Democratic challenger problematic, given the state of the Democratic Party in Tennessee these days.

It would seem likely that the winner of the Republican primary would still win in Tennessee, whether it's Alexander or Carr. And the betting line is still on Alexander. But he is vulnerable and no one seems to know that better than Alexander. He has spent weeks getting around the state raising money and discouraging opposition.

He does well when he is here. The problems arise when he goes back to Washington.