A heavyweight super PAC is taking aim at Sen. Lamar Alexander, suggesting he was set to receive a political favor for procuring a $400,000 earmark in 2009 for the Tennessee State Museum.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, a group once headed by former Sen. Jim DeMint, exists to elect "strong conservatives" to the U.S. Senate. After Nashville news station WTVF reported last week that a traveling exhibit chronicling Alexander's two terms as Tennessee governor would be postponed after questions arose regarding its timing, the Virginia-based group is claiming the museum's plans and the senator's earmark were connected.
Matt Hoskins, executive director for the fund, pointed to an earmark secured by Alexander as part of a 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which was designated for "rehousing the museum's collection into more stable storage conditions." Because of added federal cash, Hoskins said the museum was prepared to return the favor to Alexander by sponsoring a traveling exhibit of his days as governor later this year—which coincides with the ramp-up for campaign season.
"It shows an example of why earmarks are bad policy and why they lead to waste and abuse," Hoskins said in an interview with Nooga.com. "We want to back conservative candidates for the U.S. Senate, and Sen. Alexander is definitely on our list of who our members in Tennessee and across the nation would like to see replaced with a stronger conservative. And it's not just because of this issue."
Last year, the group spent upward of $16 million in Senate races across the country, helping lawmakers such as Texas freshman Sen. Ted Cruz achieve victory and funneling cash to target Democrats.
The group also called out the senator for his vote against an amendment last year that would have enacted a permanent ban on earmarks—a measure that was rejected in a 59-49 roll call.
"We've tried over a number of years to get rid of earmarks, and Alexander has fought that effort," Hoskins said.
Although Alexander has yet to draw a primary challenger, several conservative groups across the state have been openly seeking to recruit a candidate to challenge the senator, who is seeking a third Senate term.
Still, the majority of the Republican establishment across the state, including Gov. Bill Haslam, the majority of the state GOP delegation and all former chairs of the Tennessee Republican Party, have endorsed Alexander.
Jim Jeffries, spokesman for Alexander, dismissed the fund's targeting of the senator.
Jeffries added that the now-postponed exhibit would have been "funded by private money" and not by any leftover cash that had been procured by Alexander years ago through the earmarking process.
"Somebody is making a silly political stretch," Jeffries said in an email. "The truth is, the federal funding secured in 2009 was for the preservation of permanent museum artifacts. If and when the exhibit occurs, it will be funded with private money, just like all of the museum's traveling exhibits."
Hoskins said whether the exhibit would be privately funded was of no concern to him.
"We're not trying to say that specific money for the earmark was going to be used for this exhibit," he said. "It's really just the operation of trading favors—you get this earmark, and we'll help you. It's just this thing that has made Congress a favor factory, and it promotes bad policy, waste and abuse."
Hoskins added that despite having no current challengers to support in a potential GOP primary against Alexander, the group would consider doing "everything [it] possibly could" to assist a more conservative candidate.