Against the Grain

Bob Corker’s Political Self-Destruction

The senator lost touch with Tennessee’s politics. He’s now trying to salvage a career that’s already long gone.

Sen. Bob Corker
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Feb. 13, 2018, 3:12 p.m.

If there were an award in politics for self-inflicted political damage, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee would be a shoo-in. The senator gratuitously napalmed his political career by slamming President Trump in scathing terms, and now may want to keep his job in the Senate even after having announced his retirement and losing support from much of his political base.

Corker’s sudden change of heart is infuriating Republican officials tasked with maintaining the GOP’s Senate majority, who view his indecision as a distracting sideshow in a must-win race. He would have been a clear favorite for reelection, but his retirement and Trump-bashing opened up a promising opportunity for ambitious successors. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the leading contender to succeed him, raised a whopping $2 million in the last quarter and consolidated support from disparate wings of the Republican Party.

“It’s Bob drafting Bob. It’s ridiculous. It’s a solution in search of a problem. Marsha is the best candidate anywhere in the country,” said one senior Republican Senate strategist unaffiliated with the race. “She’s done more from a campaign point of view than any other Senate race.”

Corker’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

A Corker comeback is premised on the idea that Blackburn is a uniquely flawed candidate. But in reality, Tennessee is one of the few recruiting successes for a bruised Republican Party looking for victories anywhere it can find them. There aren’t any Roy Moore-type candidates running in red-state Tennessee—a major risk Republicans feared after Corker’s retirement—and Blackburn is by far the strongest fundraiser of any 2018 recruit in the GOP. She’s also one of the few Republican women running for the Senate in a party that’s desperately trying to diversify its ranks. Blackburn spokeswoman Andrea Bozek took a swipe at Corker along those lines: “Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig,” she told The Washington Post.

Blackburn would also be in strong position to win a primary clash with Corker, if it occurred. A survey commissioned by the pro-Blackburn Club for Growth in January found the congresswoman leading by 38 points over the better-known Corker, primarily because of the senator’s low favorability with pro-Trump conservatives. (Blackburn faces former Rep. Stephen Fincher in the Senate primary; she held a comfortable 33-point lead over him in the same poll.)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is close with Corker, has no interest in seeing a Republican civil war, according to a source familiar with his thinking. When informed of Corker’s possible interest in running again, he counseled the senator to discuss it with the White House. It’s difficult to see Trump, who belittled the senator as “Little Bob Corker” after a nasty tit-for-tat, intervening aggressively on his behalf after their feud. Meanwhile, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner attended a political event with Blackburn on Monday—a sign party leaders have little interest in clearing the field for Corker.

Corker also has a frosty relationship with Blackburn, who has been an outspoken made-for-TV conservative since she was first elected to the House in 2002. Despite the state’s growing rightward bent, most of the leading Republican senators from the state have proudly hailed from the party’s establishment wing—from Sen. Lamar Alexander to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the late Sen. Howard Baker.

Democrats hope—and some moderate Republicans fear—that Blackburn’s hard-line conservatism could hurt her chances in a general election against popular former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. But Tennessee has been one of the most Trump-friendly states in the country, with the president’s job approval at a healthy 56 percent in a Morning Consult survey conducted last month.

A survey recently conducted by Republican pollster Glen Bolger showed Bredesen leading Blackburn by 2 points (47-45 percent), a result that alarmed Corker allies. But polling isn’t particularly predictive at this early stage of the race. Bredesen has higher name identification than Blackburn, who has more room to grow as she gets introduced across the state. A Blackburn adviser noted that she’s virtually unknown in eastern Tennessee, the state’s historic GOP stronghold. And the partisan nature of a Senate race should inevitably push more reliable Republicans into Blackburn’s camp.

Corker has displayed the reactive thinking that is all too common in Washington. After Trump showed little aptitude for governing during the chaotic first months of his administration, Corker routinely vented his frustration publicly. That was a major factor in his abrupt decision to retire, according to sources familiar with his thinking. But the logjam has eased somewhat—after the GOP passed significant tax legislation, the two parties agreed on a big spending deal last week.

The midterm environment, which looked dismal when Corker announced his retirement, also has gotten noticeably better since then. In states and districts that Trump carried in 2016, the mood has shifted even more markedly. (It’s why GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota is suddenly leaning towards a campaign against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.) It’s no coincidence that Corker’s sudden interest in sticking around coincided with the GOP’s rising fortunes.

“It’s tough to be Bob Corker’s psychiatrist. He makes rash decisions. He’s always trending in one direction, always the wrong direction,” said the GOP Senate strategist.

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