Retiring Sen. Bob Corker is “listening” to Republicans urging him to run for reelection, according to a person close to him, a development that would quell anxiety among Republicans over losing a must-win seat to Democrats this fall.
The two-term Tennessee GOP senator decided to call it quits in September amid an on-again, off-again dispute with President Donald Trump that eroded his standing with the party’s base. But now a faction of Republicans in Tennessee and Washington are worried that the favorite for the Republican Senate nomination, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), could lose a general election — and with it the Republican Senate majority.
They want Corker to get back in to hold the seat and preserve waning foreign policy experience in the GOP. And there are signs that he is open to it, despite the steep uphill climb a Republican primary might entail.
“While Corker is listening to the concerns that have been raised, he hasn’t made any commitments,” said the person close to Corker. Corker himself said on Monday he had no comment on the race.
An internal poll taken in late January shows former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) narrowly edging out Blackburn in a hypothetical match-up. With Republicans controlling just 51 seats, a loss in Tennessee and other competitive races could put the Senate in play — despite an electoral map tilted heavily in the GOP’s favor.
The poll, conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies for a Tennessee business group and obtained by POLITICO, shows Bredesen up 47 to 45, despite a sample that was overweighted with Republicans. The survey shows that voters preferred a generic Republican over a Democrat and strongly approved of Trump, signs that even in a Republican-leaning state like Tennessee, Blackburn is in for a tough race.
Asked to respond to Corker’s second thoughts and the coterie of Republicans pushing him to run again, Blackburn’s campaign insisted she was in the race to stay, whether Corker runs or not. Blackburn’s allies argue she will unite the GOP in the conservative state and crush Bredesen in the fall.
“It’s well past time for the good old boys’ club in Washington D.C. to quit thinking they know who the best candidate and conservative leader is for Tennessee families,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for Blackburn.
Public polls show Blackburn is a heavy favorite over former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) in the primary to succeed Corker, and her allies argue the state is so Republican that she can’t lose after winning the primary. Trump won nearly 2-to-1 against Hillary Clinton in Tennessee. She also raised $2 million in her first quarter as a candidate, a significant haul. Meanwhile, a Club for Growth poll from January showed Blackburn trouncing Corker.
The Club for Growth, which has spent millions in past elections to defeat more moderate Republicans, will stick with Blackburn regardless of whether Corker reverses course. Their poll showed Blackburn beating Fincher by more than 50 points and also showed Blackburn trouncing Corker.
“The message that I’d want to give to the folks trying to entice Corker into running: You shouldn’t do it, he’s gonna lose,” said Club President David McIntosh. “It would be a sad way for him to end his career to end up being defeated. We will continue to support Marsha.”
McIntosh also argued that Corker re-entering the race would only weaken the GOP by reopening ideological chasms within the party. Indeed, there is a long running feud between Tennessee’s more moderate Republicans and conservatives like Blackburn.
Moderates in Tennessee had been aligning with Fincher, but Blackburn has outraised him and Fincher has failed to get traction in the polls. Fincher’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Victor Ashe, a former GOP mayor of Knoxville, prefers Fincher but said he’s “not sure that he’s a candidate, based on his inactivity.” If he was left to choose between Blackburn and Bredesen, Ashe said he would not commit to endorsing Blackburn. “I could go either way,” Ashe said.
“Anyone seriously sizing it up would have to say Mrs. Blackburn would be somewhat ahead of Bredesen but not a lot,” Ashe said. “Depending on how the national situation goes, it could be extremely competitive. It would be hard to attack [Bredesen’s] record as governor because so many Republicans like him.”
Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist (R) was blunt when asked about Blackburn: “You can say on the record I’m not supporting her.” Blackburn worked in Sundquist’s administration and the two do not get along.
The distaste for Blackburn in some corners of the party is driving the campaign to recruit Corker to get back in. Those Republicans argue that she could blow a winnable race, pointing to Bredesen’s coalitions of Republican supporters when he won two governors races.
“Tennessee by any normal standard is a Republican state. I think it’s only close with Blackburn,” said a top Tennessee Republican urging Corker to get back in. “The problem is Marsha’s a polarizing force. Her nomination is the only path to put this race in play.”
Yet Corker would almost certainly need a blessing from Trump to have any hope of beating Blackburn, who has received money from Vice President Mike Pence’s political action committee. Corker has reached out to the White House to gauge Trump’s support, according to a source familiar with those conversations. And almost all of the dozen Republican officials and operatives interviewed for this story say Corker would need a presidential endorsement to have any chance against Blackburn.
Furthermore, the electorate in Tennessee is so overwhelmingly Republican now that several strategists said Blackburn would be fine once she wins the August primary and shifts gears ahead of the general election.
Blackburn launched her campaign attacking GOP leadership and had an early campaign ad pulled from Twitter for being “inflammatory” — and that rubs some Tennessee Republicans the wrong way.
“It’s as much about taste as it is about electability for some people,” said a strategist following the race.
The last-gasp effort to recruit Corker is an awkward topic in the Senate GOP right now. Senate GOP campaign chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) attended a political event with Blackburn in New York on Monday, even as his colleague Corker mulled getting back in the race, according to two sources with knowledge of the event.
Plus, Blackburn would be just the sixth female senator in the GOP caucus if she were to win.
“This situation is baffling since we need more Republican women in the Senate — not less,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). has spoken to Corker about whether he should reconsider his retirement, but the leader told Corker he needed to work it out with the president, a source with direct knowledge of the conversation said. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander has also discussed the race with Corker, but is not explicitly pushing Corker to run again, said a Republican familiar with those talks.
Yet clearly some Senate Republicans are excited by the Senate Foreign Relations chairman’s fresh look at his decision to retire. Corker’s departure, along with uncertainty about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the retirement of House Foreign Relations Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), would further drain the party of senior foreign policy voices.
“That would be terrific,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We need to hold that seat. I don’t have any doubt” that Corker would win.
Such a move would not be unprecedented.
Two years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reversed his plans to retire from the Senate despite denying any second thoughts for weeks. One of the key people who convinced Rubio to run? Sen. Bob Corker.
Anthony Adragna and Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.
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