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Front Page - Friday, March 2, 2018

View from the Hill: GOP averts ugly battle with Corker opting out of race

It’s not often Tennessee’s Republican legislative leaders have to endorse a congressional candidate against a vacillating opponent. But the General Assembly’s GOP must have been worried about losing to a Democrat as they consolidated forces behind U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in an effort to maintain a hold on the U.S. Senate seat Bob Corker might or might not be vacating.

Eighteen state senators and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally publicly supported Blackburn last week, with McNally calling it an “urging statement” for Republicans to vote for Blackburn, a former state lawmaker.

Their endorsement runs counter to that of Congressman Stephen Fincher from Frog Jump in West Tennessee who recently dropped out of the race and encouraged Corker to get in.

Corker finally read the tea leaves, though, and dropped out for good earlier this week. His chief of staff told Politico he finally decided this would be his last year as a U.S. senator after consulting Tennessee Republicans and GOP senators.

Grumbling started about three weeks ago when some high-level Republicans started raising doubts about Blackburn’s ability to win the general election this November. It reached the point Corker started reconsidering his decision to step away from the Senate seat.

Corker, who appears to be over his 2017 fight with President Donald Trump – remember, Jesus said forgive 77 times – turned the situation into the hottest political question in Tennessee. He didn’t have much to say to Blackburn during an appearance in Memphis last weekend, according to reports.

But he’d been peppering some Tennessee political leaders with questions about his standing among voters: In other words, could he win if he decided to run?

Asked what his advice would be for Corker if the senator approached him, McNally says, “I think he should have done that before he said he wasn’t going to run.”

Others point out if Corker looks at his poll numbers against Blackburn, he’ll realize quickly he’s going to lose. In fact, a poll by the Committee to Defend the President found Blackburn would beat Corker 2-1 in a Republican primary.

Setting the stage

It’s clear, though, some within the Republican Party are afraid of losing the seat to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, and MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says their concern is justified.

Tennessee is a red state, and Democrats constantly face an uphill climb, he notes, but Bredesen “has proven he knows how to win in Tennessee,” says Syler, who worked as chief of staff for former Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon.

“I think what Republicans are debating among themselves right now is: Who has the best chance to hold the seat. Is it Marsha Blackburn or is it Bob Corker?” Syler says, before Corker’s chief of staff announced he’s out of the race.

Corker could have avoided a good deal of political heartache by starting a re-election campaign last year, instead of saying he was getting out and then mulling a return to the fray, Syler points out.

A return by Corker also would have been complicated by the public feud he carried on with the president in 2017.

Syler predicted one of Corker’s biggest problems in a campaign against Blackburn would be “30-second ads of his greatest hits against Donald Trump.”

One Sunday morning last fall Trump went on a Twitter tirade in which he said Corker “begged” for a Senate endorsement as well as the vice presidency, then didn’t have the “guts” to run for a third term. He also laid blame on Corker for the nation’s Iran nuclear deal. Corker responded by calling the White House an “adult day care center” and tweeted, “Someone apparently missed their shift this morning.”

Such a TV ad would run constantly and register well among Republican primary voters who give Trump 80 to 90 percent approval ratings, Syler points out.

Million-dollar question

The situation with Corker and Blackburn comes down to this, Syler says: “I think Bob Corker wants to run, and I think the question he and his supporters are trying to answer is: Can he overcome his public spat with President Trump and win a hotly-contested Republican primary?”

Republican voters, though, including some of his students are “fairly pragmatic,” Syler says, and if someone can persuade them Corker has a better chance than Blackburn of beating Bredesen, then they don’t care.

Whoever makes the best argument for holding the seat will pick up Republican primary votes, he says. Blackburn seems to be making the best argument, even if her spokesperson deems anyone a “sexist pig” if they don’t think she can win.

Bredesen cooling out

The former two-term Nashville mayor and two-term Tennessee governor sees the Republican Party as two parties now, one focused on economics and the other a “conservative wing.”

“Corker is much more of an economic Republican and so on, and that may be where it’s coming from. But I don’t know, and it’s really not on the top of my mind right now, and I’m committed to doing this,” Bredesen says in a recent interview shortly before touring the MTSU College of Education in Murfreesboro. “I’m doing it and who I end up running against is yet to be determined.”

In campaigning, Bredesen says he won’t get uptight about party loyalty, even though he’s the last Democrat in Tennessee to win a statewide election. Instead, he wants to tap in to frustration he sees across Tennessee. People thought they were playing by the rules but aren’t seeing their income grown and they want change to “restore a little bit of the balance of power back to them,” he says.

The former governor says the Democratic Party was at its best when it didn’t get caught up in “esoteric issues” and was more of a “muscular party” concentrating on creating working-class opportunities.

“That’s what I’ve always been, and I think if I can stick with that there’s a lot of people who are perfectly willing to vote. There were certainly a lot of Republicans and independents who were willing to vote for me as governor,” he says.

With Bredesen playing it cool while Republican candidates tried to figure out who’s on first, Syler says the situation could have been similar to what Democrats faced years ago when Tennessee was a blue state and Republicans sometimes slipped in for a victory.

“Certainly, a primary that gets divisive helps Bredesen,” he points out.

Taking things one more step, if Blackburn had won following a bitter primary, some Republicans could have crossed over and vote for Bredesen, Syler says. But if Corker were to win after a harsh primary, Blackburn supporters won’t vote Democrat. Instead, they might skip the general election in November, he says.

Thus, a bitter primary “marginally benefits” Bredesen, who says he’s prepared for a nasty general election either way.

With Corker officially stepping out for good, however, independents might be willing to cast a vote for Bredesen.

Tennessee Republicans might be fed up with Corker because of his Trump bashing and indecisiveness. Thus, for the state Senate’s leadership, the die is cast, as the GOP opts for Trumpdom over the mainstream Republican. It’s a stance they could be regretting come November.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.