Sen. Bob Corker (R)
Elected: 2006, term expires 2012, 1st term.
Born: Aug. 24, 1952, Orangeburg, SC .
Education: U. of TN, B.S. 1974.
Family: Married (Elizabeth); 2 children.
Elected office: Chattanooga mayor, 2001-05.
Professional Career: Owner, Bencor Corp., 1978-90; Commissioner, TN Dept. of Fin. and Admin., 1995-96; Owner, Corker Group, 1982-2006.
Bob Corker, the only freshman Republican elected to the Senate in 2006, is the junior senator from Tennessee. He was born in South Carolina, grew up in Chattanooga and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974 with a degree in industrial management. Just a few years out of college, he started his own successful construction company, which he sold before he turned 40. Before that, Corker took a church mission trip to Haiti, which inspired him to help create Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, a non-profit organization designed to get low-income families into affordable housing. In 1994, he ran for the Senate, finishing second in the Republican primary to Bill Frist, who went on to defeat Democratic incumbent Jim Sasser and rise to Senate majority leader. Fresh off that race, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist named him state finance commissioner, which gave Corker responsibility for state government spending. After 18 months, he returned to private business by purchasing two real estate and development companies in Chattanooga. In 2001, he won election as Chattanooga mayor, and in that job, got credit for a decline in crime and for the success of the city’s revitalized waterfront.
|Bob Corker (R)||929,911||(51%)||($18,565,935)|
|Harold Ford (D)||879,976||(48%)||($15,302,455)|
|Bob Corker (R)||231,541||(48%)|
|Ed Bryant (R)||161,189||(34%)|
|Van Hilleary (R)||83,078||(17%)|
Corker was not yet through his first term as mayor in October 2004 when he announced his bid for Senate in 2006 to succeed Frist, who stuck to his initial campaign promise to serve just two terms. By the end of the year, Corker had raised $2 million. Other Republicans joined the field, including two conservative former congressmen: Ed Bryant, who lost to Lamar Alexander in the 2002 Senate primary, and Van Hilleary, who lost to Democrat Phil Bredesen in the 2002 governor’s race. The more moderate Corker drew on his personal wealth and spent $5 million through mid-July alone in an effort to introduce himself to voters and defend against charges that he was insufficiently conservative. Bryant and Hilleary claimed he raised property taxes in Chattanooga and criticized his position on abortion, noting that he supported abortion rights during his 1994 Senate campaign. Corker responded by calling his opponents “ineffective career politicians” and talked about his background as a successful businessman and mayor. He said he was “wrong” on abortion in 1994 and now held a “pro-life” position, though, unlike Bryant and Hilleary, he would make exceptions in cases of rape and incest. Corker ended up winning by a comfortable margin as Bryant and Hilleary split the conservative vote. Corker carried nearly every county east of Nashville and a half-dozen west of it, winning 48% to Bryant’s 34%; Hilleary finished third with 17%.
The Democratic nominee was U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis, who in the absence of serious primary opposition was able to conserve his resources for the general election. Youthful, ambitious and telegenic, Ford was an immensely attractive candidate. The son of former Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Sr., he was first elected to the House in 1996, just months after graduating from law school, and his record was sufficiently moderate to make him a competitive statewide candidate. The national media took great interest in the race. Ford was seeking to become the first African-American senator popularly elected in the South and from a state that had never before elected a black candidate to statewide office. For much of the general election campaign, it appeared Corker might defy Tennessee’s recent Republican trend in national elections and lose a seat that was critical to the party’s hopes of retaining its Senate majority. Corker struggled to unify the party after the contentious primary and failed to gain traction in the two months following the August primary. Meanwhile, Ford ran a nearly flawless campaign. Corker's efforts to frame Ford as too liberal for Tennessee fell flat in the face of Ford’s centrist positions on illegal immigration, the Iraq war, border security and gay marriage. Ford also put Corker on the defensive about his business dealings and his tenure as Chattanooga mayor.
The national media tended to view the race through a racial prism, but Ford faced two more daunting obstacles. The first was the state’s political landscape. The last Democrat that Tennessee elected to the Senate was Al Gore in 1990, and Republican George W. Bush embarrassed Gore by defeating him 51%-47% on his home turf in 2000. Bush then widened his Tennessee margin in 2004 with a 57%-43 re-election victory. Then there was the Ford family. The scion of a Memphis political dynasty, Ford had to weather distractions caused by several family members, including his uncle, former state Sen. John Ford, who was indicted on federal corruption charges the day after Harold Ford filed to run for the Senate; John Ford later resigned from office. John Ford’s sister—Harold’s aunt—won the special election to replace him but she was ousted by the state Senate in April amid allegations of vote fraud. Meanwhile, in the racially-charged House race to succeed Harold Ford, his brother Jake unexpectedly ran as an independent candidate against white Jewish Democratic nominee Steve Cohen.
Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, the election appeared to be a dead heat. But Corker gained momentum after Republicans began zeroing in on Ford’s personal story, characterizing it as a life of privilege. Ford went to preparatory school in Washington, graduated from an Ivy League university and attended law school in Michigan before taking over his father’s seat in Congress. Corker’s ads described his rise from a laborer who poured concrete. In late October, the Republican National Committee weighed in with a controversial ad featuring purported on-the-street interviews with regular people, all of whom had unpleasant things to say about Ford. But one individual, an attractive young, blonde and white woman, drew all the attention, claiming that she had “met Harold at the Playboy party,” a reference to news stories that Ford had attended a Super Bowl party hosted by Playboy magazine. The commercial ended with the woman saying, “Harold, call me.” Critics called the ad racial politicking. Republicans insisted it was about values. Corker’s campaign asked television stations not to air the spot. Earlier, after Ford had run an ad filmed in a Memphis church, the National Republican Senatorial Committee responded with a commercial asking, “What kind of man parties with Playboy playmates in lingerie, then films political ads from a church pew?”
More votes were cast in this election, 1.8 million, than in two other high-profile state contests—the governor’s race and an amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which passed 81%-19%. Corker won 51%-48%. Whites voted 59%-40% for Corker and African-Americans voted 95%-4% for Ford. Ford won 61%-38% in the Memphis area while Corker carried the Nashville area 50%-49%. Corker far outpaced Ford in East Tennessee, winning 58%-40%. Ford carried Middle and West Tennessee 52%-46%.
In the Senate, Corker tried to further separate himself from the NRSC ads. He introduced a bill to allow candidates to approve commercials and direct mail pieces from political parties before they are released to the public. While he was a reliable vote for Republicans on issues such as opposing embryonic-stem-cell and troop withdrawal timetables in Iraq, Corker broke with the party on some high-profile issues. He backed an energy bill to raise gas mileage standards for cars and trucks, which Republicans tried to kill. He also joined the bipartisan “Gang of 10” to promote a 2008 energy bill allowing offshore drilling while also emphasizing renewable energy sources. When he was criticized by Republicans who wanted to highlight the energy issue in the fall elections, Corker told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “It’s really, candidly, grotesque to watch that. Energy is a major issue, and I know there are many in my party that don’t want to solve it.”
In 2007, he voted for a Democratic bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and also played a crucial role in negotiations to renew federal funding for the state’s TennCare program for the poor and disabled. When the administration stalled on renewing the state’s funding, he blocked confirmation of President George W. Bush’s non-military nominees until the state got its money. Tennessee Democratic Gov. Bredesen praised Corker, telling reporters “We would not have nearly as good a deal today without Bob Corker laying down on the track the way that he did.”
In January 2008, Corker, a former commissioner of finance for Tennessee, got a seat on the Banking Committee. That year, he was a key negotiator on the $700 billion government rescue of the financial services market. When the big three domestic auto makers sought a multi-billion-dollar bailout, Corker criticized auto executives who appeared before the committee, chiding their plans for securing government loans and waiting for mergers, and telling the head of Chrysler: “While this is happening, you’re going to be going to spas and getting facials and hopefully finding someone to marry you.” Corker offered then an alternative proposal that required retiring autoworkers to accept most of their benefits in stock rather than in cash, forced bondholders to accept a steep cut in the value of their bonds and required wages to be comparable to U.S. employees of foreign automakers, which generally pay their workers less than domestic manufacturers. His proposals angered autoworkers and unions, including many in Tennessee at GM’s Spring Hill plant. Corker’s work on the issue positioned him as a player on economic issues and as a bipartisan negotiator.