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Departure of former Chattanooga mayor sets off scramble for suddenly vacant Senate seat
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
NASHVILLE (CFP) — U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has announced that he won’t seek re-election to a third term in 2018, setting off what’s likely to be a high-octane battle between establishment and populist Republicans vying to succeed him, along with providing a possible opening for Democrats.
“When I ran for the Senate in 2006, I told people that I couldn’t imagine serving for more than two terms,” Corker said in a statement announcing his retirement. “Understandably, as we have gained influence, that decision has become more difficult. But I have always been drawn to the citizen legislator model, and while I realize it is not for everyone, I believe with the kind of service I provide, it is the right one for me.”
In his statement, Corker also made this oblique reference that will likely set off much rumination over what he meant: “The most important public service I have to offer our country could well occur over the next 15 months, and I want to be able to do that as thoughtfully and independently as I did the first 10 years and nine months of my Senate career.”
Corker, 65, served four years as mayor of Chattanooga before being elected to the Senate in 2006 to replace the retiring Bill Frist, after a hard-fought race with Democratic U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. He was re-elected in 2012 with 65 percent of the vote, and became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015.
Had he sought re-election, Corker would have been the prohibitive favorite in 2018, but he would also have faced a primary challenge from the populist wing of the GOP, whose activists are expected to target a number of Senators in the Republican leadership in 2018.
Corker made headlines in August when he told a local television station in Chattanooga that President Trump “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
Trump responded with a Tweet: “Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in ’18. Tennessee not happy!”
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.
Among the establishment Republicans being mentioned are U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, from Williamson County near Nashville, and outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam from Knoxville, who is term limited in the governorship in 2018.
The only Democrat in the race so far is James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and Iraq war veteran. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to win a statewide race in Tennessee back in 2006, has said he does not plan to run.
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 Tennesse — 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.