Can Corker Survive a Republican Primary?

Some Tennessee Republicans doubt he could dislodge the GOP’s leading contender, Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

Sen. Bob Corker (third from right) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (right), shown with President Trump as he signed an executive order in Nashville last month, could face off in a Republican Senate primary battle.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Feb. 14, 2018, 1:48 p.m.

Sen. Bob Corker is looking into running again, but his window may have already closed.

Following a highly public spat with President Trump, some GOP strategists believe the Tennessee Republican’s path to renomination would be very narrow against the party’s leading candidate, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is more conservative and remains close with the president.

The situation has placed Republicans in a precarious position, caught between an incumbent and a congresswoman who has drawn significant support from the party’s establishment and grassroots. Meanwhile, Republicans are airing concerns that a Corker-Blackburn race would squander valuable resources ahead of a legitimate general-election challenge from former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“Corker’s numbers are very poor among Republican primary voters,” Tennessee GOP strategist Darren Morris said. “It would be very unfortunate if Republicans have to spend $10 to $15 million against each other when Bredesen is a very strong candidate.”

Some Republicans went a step further, predicting that it would create a highly damaging divide in the GOP.

“It’ll tear our party apart, and it will make Alabama look like a day care,” said one Blackburn ally, citing the neighboring state’s contentious Senate special-election primary last year. “I’m not sure why Bob Corker wants to push us into the kitchen.”

Corker, who has until April 5 to file for the race, would have plenty of money to wage a campaign. As of Dec. 31, he had $6.2 million in the bank, while Blackburn reported having $4.6 million. And his allies insist that the senator would be able to rehabilitate himself in a primary, citing his incumbency advantage.

“His current numbers are just numbers in a moment in time,” said Tennessee GOP consultant Tom Ingram, who has worked for Corker.

Former Rep. Stephen Fincher, who has drawn support from more-moderate Republicans, is also running, though his campaign has failed to take off against Blackburn. The Fincher campaign did not return requests for comment, but several Republicans speculated that he would drop out if Corker returned to the race.

Republicans predicted a race between the two Tennessee heavyweights would play out along Trump-related fault lines. Blackburn was a Trump surrogate in 2016, while Corker’s verbal sparring with Trump culminated in the president declaring that the senator could not get elected dogcatcher.

Corker allies contend that his relationship with Trump has improved in recent weeks. Corker joined the president on an Air Force One flight last month for his address to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s convention in Nashville. Blackburn was also on that flight.

Some Tennessee Republicans, citing Corker’s deliberative nature, predicted that the senator would not seek reelection unless he saw a clear path to victory.

“I don’t think Senator Corker would get into the race if he didn’t think he would win,” said Mark Braden, a former Corker campaign manager.

Still, several Republican strategists said they believe Corker is unlikely to win the president’s endorsement. Without that backing, they said, he would face a steep climb to defeat Blackburn.

The Koch network has vowed to stand by her even if Corker runs, and the conservative nonprofit group Winning For Women reiterated its support. Blackburn also won a new endorsement this week from the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List.

The Club for Growth, which endorsed Blackburn, released a poll in January that showed Blackburn crushing Corker 63 to 25 percent in a hypothetical race. Club President David McIntosh said in an interview that it is “likely” his organization would spend in the primary to boost Blackburn if Corker ran.

“The establishment is playing with fire here,” said McIntosh, adding that a primary “would drain resources to win in the fall.”

It is unclear how the party establishment in Washington would respond. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has historically backed incumbents. However, NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner attended a political event Monday with Blackburn. And Ward Baker, the NRSC’s executive director in the 2016 cycle, is a top adviser on Blackburn’s campaign.

Fueling the Corker push is a fear that Blackburn is too conservative and could put the seat—and by extension the GOP’s 51-49 majority—at risk.

There is evidence that Bredesen may be siphoning off some Republican support. Colleen Conway Welch, the widow of the prominent late GOP fundraiser Ted Welch, is headlining a Feb. 22 fundraiser for Bredesen, according to an invitation obtained by National Journal.

But the Blackburn campaign aggressively denied that she is ill-suited for a race against Bredesen.

“Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig,” spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said in a statement.

For now, party strategists are grappling with the unpredictability of a race that appeared set once Corker retired and Blackburn entered as the party’s favorite. Blackburn’s team has not been in touch with Corker as he decides on his plans, a Blackburn aide said.

“Once he walked away from it, we moved on, and moved on pretty successfully, in our view,” said one GOP Senate strategist unaffiliated with the race. “Corker in the middle of this now isn’t doing any good for anybody.”

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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