Ben Cunningham, one of the leaders of the fledgling Beat Lamar campaign, walked into the Sheraton Music City Hotel Saturday morning holding a big plastic rhinoceros in his arms, and hilarity ensued.
It was Lamar the RINO! Get it? The lobby full of tea partiers did. Bursting into wisecracks, they took turns mocking Sen. Lamar Alexander as a Republican In Name Only.
"Why don't you paint a big bull's-eye on his side, Ben?" one tea partier laughed.
"I got it at Home Depot," Cunningham said, proudly holding up the rhinoceros for inspection. "It was in the home decor department."
Life is so unfair. Just when Alexander should have attained statesman's status in the twilight of his long public life, he's the butt of jokes from a bunch of cranky malcontents in his own political party. And it's probably all downhill from here.
These tea partiers plan to devote the next year of their lives — give or take a few hours — to defeating Alexander in next year's Republican Senate primary. Their purpose at this gathering was to plot strategy, rev up the troops and audition potential opponents for the two-term senator, whom they see as a compromiser and closet supporter of President Obama.
If you haven't heard this, you will soon enough (the tea party will make certain of it): Alexander has voted with Obama 62 percent of the time.
Say what you will of tea partiers' loose grip on reality, they seem to possess a clear-eyed determination to throw out Alexander. Saturday was the opening day of college football season — not a time for most ordinary Southerners to stray too far from their living rooms — and it was broiling hot outside. Yet roughly 300 tea partiers converged here to listen for three hours to state Rep. Joe Carr and activist Kevin Kookogey expound mind-numbingly on their beliefs.
The crowd sat through it all, lustily chanting "Beat Lamar!" on cue, with the happy boisterousness of an army about to obliterate a hated enemy.
Both Carr and Kookogey hope to become Beat Lamar's chosen one, but each pledged that he will drop out of the picture if the tea party rallies behind the other guy.
That's important — and really bad news for Alexander — because it means the senator's opponents won't divide their votes in the primary. Splitting the conservative vote arguably is the only reason Bob Corker is a U.S. senator today. He won his primary in 2006 with fewer votes than the combined total of his two more conservative opponents. Bill Haslam did the same thing in his 2010 primary for governor.
Saturday's meeting was the first of five across the state to vet potential challengers to Alexander and to conduct straw polls, the results of which the tea party will add up at the end of September in deciding which candidate to back.
Just as important, Beat Lamar strategists were lining up foot soldiers for the campaign's grunt work. For every 50 homes you visit, you are awarded another vote in the straw poll, they were told. What a deal! They have set the ambitious goal of knocking on the doors of 750,000 Republicans across the state by Election Day to try to persuade them to vote against Alexander.
The captain of this ground game is Lorie Medina, a leader of the Dallas tea party who helped elect Ted Cruz to the Senate from Texas in 2012. Author of the how-to manual "Community Organizing for Conservatives: A Manifesto for Localism in the Tea Party Movement," she said she came to Tennessee "because Ted Cruz needs a friend in the Senate."
Medina is one of a new breed. Over the past couple of election cycles, the tea party has matured from fist-shaking rabble-rousers to cagey political operators, turning all that enthusiasm, resentment and outrage into votes and knocking off establishment Republicans all over the country. Medina is co-founder of the Real Conservatives National Committee, whose stated purpose is "to out-organize, out-hustle, and out-work the establishment candidates anointed by the string-pullers inside the Beltway."
This Beat Lamar campaign — a project of Medina's group — is following the model: Come together behind one candidate and let conservative super PACs buy the TV attack ads, while you unleash a cadre of energetic grassroots volunteers to find your voters and bring them to the polls.
There's an app for that, Medina told tea partiers signing up to go door to door. It will display a GPS map directing you to the homes to which you've been assigned, she explained. As they struggled with their smartphones to find it, she offered a few door-knocking tips:
Don't harangue anyone, she said, but "try to be personable" and make sure to slip Lamar put-downs into the conversation.
"You might ask, 'Did you know Lamar votes with Obama 62 percent of the time?' You're there to give them information, but you want to do it in a sly way, so no one is put off."
"This whole campaign relies on you on that doorstep," she told her newest volunteers. "We are never going to beat Lamar by running millions of dollars worth of TV ads. We won't. We can't compete on television. Our campaign depends on you having a good one-on-one conversation on that doorstep with voters. You could persuade them to vote against Lamar. That's the goal."