At least someone in the Republican Party is having second thoughts about Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement. That’s the big takeaway from a pair of new reports—one by Politico, one by CNN—that raise the possibility that the Tennessee Republican may change his mind and run for re-election in hopes of preserving his party’s control of the Senate. Now, it’s unclear just how seriously Corker and the GOP are thinking about this, but it is clear that, at the very least, Corker is in no hurry to end the chatter that he might jump in late. Capitol Hill reporters have been pestering him to comment since at least Monday night, and Corker had kept things coy until Tuesday evening, when a spokesman issued a statement saying Tennessee voters have been urging Corker to get back in the race.
“The senator has been encouraged to reconsider his decision and is listening,” his office told Politico.
There’s a lot to unpack here but the most important thing is Corker’s seat itself. It’s one of three Senate seats that Democrats are considered to have a decent chance of flipping from red to blue this fall (the others: Nevada and Arizona). And given they need to pick up at least two seats to take control of the Senate, each of those three carries outsize importance to both parties.
So it is understandable that some Republicans are starting to fret that Corker’s retirement will endanger a seat they believe should never have been in jeopardy in the first place. Tennessee isn’t as deep red as Alabama, mind you, but it’s still pretty red: It has gone GOP in every presidential and senatorial election since 2000, and yet it’s hardly a lock to do so this November.
The seat is in play for two main reasons. The first is that Corker’s announced retirement left his party without the advantages of an incumbent and likely with a far-right general-election candidate—Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn, who brags that “I’m politically incorrect and proud of it,” is popular among right-leaning Republicans in the state, but she may have limited appeal to voters who prefer their lawmakers avoid running commercials so outrageous that Twitter decides it needs to block them.
The second cause for concern is that Democrats landed their dream candidate: former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the only Democrat to win a statewide election in the Volunteer State since 1995. Bredesen won his second term by more than a 2-to-1 margin, and his entry into the race late last year was enough to convince the Cook Political Report to declare it a toss-up. (Two other widely respected handicappers, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections, were less impressed. Both still see the seat “likely” staying red for now.)
So why the apparent panic inside the GOP now? In Politico’s telling, a recent internal poll commissioned by Republican allies set off alarm bells last month. The survey found Bredesen with a narrow 2 percentage point lead in a hypothetical matchup with Blackburn—this despite a sample that was, according to Politico, “overweighted with Republicans.” Making those toplines look more like a Blackburn problem than a GOP issue were two other results: The same respondents reportedly favored a generic Republican candidate over a generic Democratic one, and they also strongly approved of the job Donald Trump is doing. (Not having seen the crosstabs myself, though, one alternative reading here is that the numbers might say less about Blackburn’s weaknesses and more about Bredesen’s strengths.)
And so the speculation began. According to Politico, Corker is “listening” to those Republicans urging him to get back in the game; though in CNN’s telling, it’s possible Corker may have been the one to start the conversation in the first place. Regardless of who contacted whom, there are still several hurdles in Corker’s way—chief among them the man in the White House.
It is an understatement to say that Corker’s relationship with Trump has seen its ups and downs. During the campaign, Corker tried to thread the needle by supporting-but-not-endorsing Trump; then, during the transition, Corker found his name on the shortlist for secretary of state only to lose out to Rex Tillerson for the job—reportedly because Trump thought the five-foot-seven Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman was too short to be the nation’s top diplomat. After Trump did his “on many sides” routines following Charlottesville, Corker was highly critical, and things only got worse after Corker announced he wouldn’t run for a third term. The senator suggested the White House was an “adult day care center” and that Trump was putting the country “on the path to World War III”; Trump tried to brand the senator “ ‘liddle’ Bob Corker” and declared that he “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee.”
Given all that, it’s hard to imagine Senate Republicans—let alone the GOP establishment at large—spending their time and money to help Corker beat back a difficult primary challenge from Blackburn unless Trump gives his blessing. According to Politico, Mitch McConnell pretty much told Corker as much when the two talked recently. And even for a man as fickle as Trump, endorsing Corker would be quite the change of heart, assuming Corker isn’t willing to get down on his knees and beg in primetime. Blackburn, meanwhile, has branded herself a loyal foot soldier to the president while simultaneously taking shots at Senate Republicans for not helping Trump more. And even if Trump were to go ahead and endorse Corker, there’s no guarantee that would be enough to hold off Blackburn in the primary (see: Luther Strange vs. Roy Moore) or to defeat Bredesen in the general. The damage may have already been done.
Still, the fact that some Republicans in Washington are reportedly even having this conversation is telling. They couldn’t ask for a more favorable Senate map. Of the 34 open seats, they need to defend only eight this fall, only one of which—Nevada—is in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Compare that to the Democrats, who are defending a total of 26 seats, a whopping 10 of which are in states that went for Trump. And yet it’s the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are struggling to field candidates they can feel good about in a general election. Given the active role Trump seemingly played in Corker’s decision, Tennessee may be the best example of that problem. But it’s hardly the only one—as Republicans in Arizona, Missouri, and North Dakota can tell you.
Update, Feb. 13, 2018, 6:17 p.m. EST: This story has been updated with a comment from Sen. Corker’s spokesperson.
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