How Real are Tea Party Hopes in Tennessee?

The tea party movement has had an up-and-down primary season, but a big statewide senate win has eluded it.

Now Tennessee, and incumbent Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, may represent the tea party’s last best chance for a senate win in primary season August 7 with its candidate state representative Joe Carr. How likely is that?

Looking at the state’s composition using the 15 county types that make-up the American Communities Project and comparing it to other states shows that Tennessee could indeed be a target of opportunity for the tea party and Mr. Carr. It has many people living in county types that tend to favor the tea party.

But the state’s composition offers challenges for the group and its candidate as well. That mix of positives and negatives for the tea party means the primary will offer a measuring stick, and possibly a verdict, for where the tea party stands in 2014.

Look at that map above and a few colors jump out at you. Note the yellow Exurb counties around Nashville and the dark blue counties the ACP calls Working Class Country. As we noted in June, those two types have some of the strongest levels of tea party support according to Pew Research Center data for 2014.

They have also been good territory for the tea party in primaries so far this year, particularly the Exurbs, as we have noted in the case of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset loss in Virginia and in Texas where tea party candidate Dan Patrick captured the lieutenant governor’s post.

Together the Exurbs and Working Class Country counties (both types heavily Republican and presumably full of potential primary voters) hold more than 26% of the population in Tennessee. That’s the good news for the tea party.

The challenge for the tea party comes in some of the other big county types in the state, including the Evangelical Hubs (light purple on the map). Those counties, also heavily Republican, have not been especially good for the tea party so far in 2014, with the exception of Mississippi, where the Family Research Council backed tea party candidate Chris McDaniel. Overall, support in those evangelical counties for the tea party has fallen sharply since 2010.

And then there is Davidson County, the home of Nashville, is a Big City in the American Communities Project (pink on the map), a county type that tends to be heavily Democratic but hasn’t been great for the tea party in 2014. Together Evangelical Hubs and Big City counties hold more than 36% of the state’s population.


Tennessee’s County Breakdown (Largest populations)

County Type

Number of Counties

% of the Population

Evangelical Hubs Evangelical Hubs



Exurbs Exurbs



African American South African Am. South



Big Cities Big Cities



College Towns College Towns



Working Class Country Working Class Ctry



There are all sorts of questions that come with that breakdown that will play a big role in the primary’s results. How many of the people in each of those counties is a Republican? Will some counties have higher rates of turnout than others? Those questions will be crucial the August 7 vote and they can’t be answered until the tallies are in.

And beyond that breakdown of the terrain, Tennessee is interesting because it offers a few other challenges for the tea party and measures of its strength in 2014.

First, the tea party’s big statewide win in Texas – and its near-miss in Mississippi – came in a primary runoff, where the electorate tends to be very small. The August primary in Tennessee is not a run-off it is a regular primary where there will likely be higher relative turnout.

Second, what was arguably the biggest tea party win in 2014 so far – in Virginia – came as a surprise where it seemed the incumbent, Mr. Cantor, was not prepared for the challenge he suddenly faced. That clearly won’t be the case in Tennessee, with a few big wins and close calls under the tea party’s belt. Mr. Alexander, the incumbent, is taking his opponent seriously.

Those facts, plus the overall community composition of the state, should favor the incumbent. But if the polls, which have shown Mr. Alexander with a big lead, suddenly begin to tighten, enthusiasm for Mr. Carr in the Exurbs and Working Class Country countries will be a key measure to watch.


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