Politics

Tennessee Republicans Prepare for Another Senate Primary

Field will grow if Bob Corker retires; Blackburn and Fincher could run

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is facing at least one primary challenger, with a few more looking at getting in the race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker asked President Donald Trump to campaign for Alabama Sen. Luther Strange ahead of next week’s Senate Republican runoff, he might have had a little self-preservation in mind. 

A win by Roy Moore, the controversial former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, would throw a wrench into the deliberative body in which the moderate Tennessee Republican serves. But a Moore victory could also embolden primary challengers to other sitting senators, like Corker.

Corker said Tuesday he hasn’t yet reached a decision about seeking a third term, and he wouldn’t comment on reports that Trump asked him to run for re-election at their meeting last week. 

He’s already facing at least one declared primary challenger. Tennessee is familiar with contentious primaries, especially in open-seat races. But should he run again, Corker can find solace in the fact that there are at least two more Republicans interested in taking him on, which would split the anti-incumbent vote. 

In today’s environment, “you can make anyone look like a squish,” one GOP operative said of Corker. “And sure, you can make that argument, but if the president comes in and says, ‘Corker’s my buddy,’ it would be hard to beat him.”

Corker went from campaigning with Trump and wanting to be secretary of State to saying the president lacked competence in the wake of his bungled remarks about the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump won Tennessee by 26 points last fall, and he retaliated against Corker by tweeting that the state wasn’t happy with him.

The two appeared to have mended relations enough for an hour-long meeting last week, and both national and Tennessee Republicans believe Trump will be there for the senator — or at the very least, not there for his potential primary opponents.

But the president is nothing if not unpredictable, and it’s unclear how much former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and other outside forces could decide to target Corker. 

For some primary voters in the state, Corker’s stature as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee makes him too much of a Washington insider. 

The two-term senator has a 74 percent rating from the conservative Club for Growth (higher than the 52 percent for Tennessee’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander). Corker has supported the president about 96 percent of the time in 2017, compared to 99 percent for the average Senate Republican, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. 

Primary challengers

Andy Ogles’ Twitter avatar is a photo of him and Trump, standing shoulder to shoulder, holding up their thumbs.

“Our problem isn’t the shortage of Republicans in the Senate, it is the shortage of the RIGHT Republicans in the Senate,” Ogles wrote in a statement announcing his challenge to Corker last week. 

Ogles, the former state director for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, is Corker’s only announced primary challenger so far. 

“Who?” joked a Tennessee political operative when asked about Ogles. 

Most Tennessee Republicans dismissed the threat he’d pose to Corker, with several doubting the Americans for Prosperity brand would provide much of a boost, especially without the involvement of the national organization. 

When asked about plans for the race, Levi Russell, the group’s vice president for public affairs, didn’t even mention Ogles’ candidacy.

“Andrew has done great work leading our chapter in Tennessee. We were sorry to receive his resignation this week, and know he will be missed,” Russell said in a statement Friday. 

Even if Nashville businessman and donor Lee Beaman is able to raise the $4 million he promised on Tuesday for a super PAC to help Ogles, there are doubts that the money will be anywhere near enough in a cycle when the airwaves will be saturated with gubernatorial ads too. 

Another potential primary challenger, Joe Carr, is a familiar name in Tennessee. A former state representative, he challenged Rep. Diane Black in a primary last year, losing by 32 points. Two years earlier, he came within 9 points of Alexander. After losing that race, he tried to unseat the state GOP chairman. 

Now he’s thinking about taking on Corker, comparing himself to Trump.“Like Donald Trump, I speak my mind. I know what I believe. I know why I believe it,” he told the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Carr has registered a federal super PAC, Stand Firm America.

Besides the name recognition that comes with so many (albeit unsuccessful) runs for office, Republicans in the state don’t see Carr gaining too much traction but suspect he could use the super PAC to play in the race if he doesn’t run himself.  

If there’s going to be anything nearing a serious primary threat to Corker, most Republicans in the state said it could come from state Sen. Mark Green, a retired Army flight surgeon who wrote a book about treating Saddam Hussein after his capture. 

But Republicans aren’t sure Green would actually do it. One Republican in the state said that, like Carr, Green “is a man without a home.” 

He was running for governor earlier this year, and then dropped out when Trump nominated him to be secretary of the Army. After withdrawing his name from consideration in May because of past controversial statements, he didn’t return to the gubernatorial race.

“Returning to Tennessee made me realize the real fight is in Washington, D.C.,” he wrote in a letter to his supporters in June. 

An open seat?

Corker said he doesn’t want to be pinned to a specific timeline about his decision.

“I want to make sure we have every opportunity to have an outstanding senator if I don’t run,” he said on his way from Senate votes Tuesday. “So fairly soon.”

If he doesn’t run, the primary field will be large.

As a mostly single-party state, Tennessee has had contentious GOP primaries well before the tea party movement. In 2006, Corker defeated two former congressmen to win the nomination for the open seat vacated by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Just last year, when a seat opened up in the 8th District, a whopping 13 Republicans competed. 

Should Corker step aside, all eyes would be on 7th District Rep. Marsha Blackburn. She’s been mentioned as a top contender in 2020 if Alexander retires. The ambitious eight-term lawmaker ended the second quarter with $3.1 million.

But former 8th District Rep. Stephen Fincher may be interested too. Fincher, a strong advocate for the Export-Import Bank, retired at the end of the last Congress after splitting with leadership over reauthorization of the bank. He still has $2.3 million in his campaign account.  

Corker had $6.6 million in the bank at the end of the second quarter — and he’s still raising money, leading many to believe he’s running. 

Hopeful Democrats 

With few offensive opportunities on the Senate map next year, Democrats are hopeful that a contentious primary could help them compete in Tennessee.

Democrats in the state say they’re prepared to go after the GOP nominee — even if it’s Corker, and they’re looking at his votes on the GOP’s health care legislation to attack him. They’re playing up his closeness to Trump too. “He knew who Donald Trump was when he endorsed him, he helped elect him and now he’s responsible for him,” said a Democratic operative in the state.

Corker narrowly defeated former Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. in 2006, winning the Senate seat by less than 3 points. Six years later, he handily defeated a candidate disavowed by the Tennessee Democratic Party. This year, Democrats are uniting behind Nashville lawyer and Iraq War veteran James Mackler.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Tennessee Senate race Solid Republican

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