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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam won’t run for U.S. Senate; U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is in

Haslam’s decision portends wide open, crowded GOP primary race

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

NASHVILLE (CNN) — Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam has decided not to seek Tennessee’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2018, which means the chase for the GOP nomination will likely be fought out among a crowded slate of candidates without his statewide electoral experience.

As Haslam announced he wouldn’t run, a veteran member of the Volunteer State’s U.S. House delegation, Marsha Blackburn from Brentwood, announced that she was would seek the Republican nomination for the seat being vacated after two terms by the retiring U.S. Senator Bob Corker.

U.S. Rep. Masha Blackburn, R-Tennessee

In her announcement video, Blackburn — describing herself as a “hardcore card-carrying Tennessee conservative” with a gun in her purse — offered a full-throated blast at sitting senators in her own party.

“The fact that our majority in the U.S. Senate can’t overturn Obamacare, or will not overturn Obamacare, it’s a disgrace,” she said. “Too many Senate Republicans act like Democrats or worse, and that’s what we have to change.”

Blackburn, 65, was first elected in 2002 to represent Tennessee’s 7th District, which takes in Nashville’s southern suburbs and the west-central part of the state. She served on President Trump’s transition team after his election in 2016.

After Corker announced his retirement on September 26, the attention in Tennessee political circles turned to Haslam, who is term-limited in 2016 but retains strong approval ratings after eight years in office. The governor is also a billionaire, thanks to his family’s truck stop business, which would have given him considerable personal financial resources to bring to a Senate race.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam

But announcing his decision not to run on Twitter, Haslam said a Senate run “would be a distraction” during his last 15 months as governor.

“I want to remain completely focused on my job,” he said. “At the end of my term, I will have been in public office for 15 years. I feel like I can be most helpful in my next service as a private citizen.”

Haslam, 59, was mayor of Knoxville before being elected governor in 2010. He was re-elected in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote.

Corker’s departure creates a wide open field on the Republican side that is likely to become a battle between the party’s establishment and populist factions. Among those considering the race are former State Rep. Joe Carr, who waged an unsuccessful attempt to oust U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander in 2014, and State Senator Mark Green, whom Trump nominated as Secretary of the Army earlier this year.

Green later withdrew his nomination after controversy arose over his past derogatory statements about transgendered people and Muslims.

Blackburn is so far the only member of the House delegation to jump into the Senate race, although former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, who left the House in 2017 after serving three terms, is considering a run.

The only Democrat in the race so far is James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and Iraq war veteran, although Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke may also be considering a run. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Tennessee back in 2006, has bowed out.

A Democrat has not won a Senate race in the Volunteer State since 1990, when Al Gore was re-elected. But the unexpected opening created by Corker’s retirement creates a vacancy that could help Democrats as they try to claw their way back into the Senate majority.

Six Southern states will select Senators in 2018, and incumbents are expected to run in all but Tennessee — Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia. The seats in Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia are held by Democrats; Texas and Mississippi are held by Republicans.

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