Corker 'Listening Closely' As Some Have Encouraged Him To Reconsider Retiring
Updated at 7 p.m. ET
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has been uncharacteristically mum this week when asked to comment on reports that he may change his mind about retiring this year.
"I don't really have anything to say," Corker told NPR Monday evening. But on Tuesday evening a spokeswoman suggested Corker could be rethinking his decision to retire.
"In recent days, people across Tennessee have reached out to Senator Corker with concerns about the outcome of this election because they believe it could determine control of the Senate and the future of our agenda," Micah Johnson, a Corker spokeswoman, said in a statement provided to NPR. "The senator has been encouraged to reconsider his decision and is listening closely."
Reports surfaced over the weekend, first by CNN, that some forces within the GOP were prodding Corker to reconsider over concerns that an open-seat race could deliver an upset Democratic victory in this year's midterm elections.
Democrats are rallying behind former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a rare breed of Democrat who has the potential to put a Southern red state in play.
The GOP Senate primary includes half a dozen candidates, but Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a media-savvy, Tea Party-styled conservative, is leading the pack so far.
While Blackburn's politics play well in a GOP primary, there appears to be some intraparty concern that she could lose a general election. Blackburn's campaign pushed back hard against that narrative, accusing forces within the GOP of blatant sexism.
"Ego-driven, tired old men"
"Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can't win a general election is just a plain sexist pig," said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for Blackburn's campaign. "She's the best fundraiser in the country and is beating Phil Bredesen in several polls. We aren't worried about these ego-driven, tired old men. Marsha has spent her whole life fighting people who told her she wasn't good enough, and she will do it again."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to say whether he would like Corker to reverse course and run for re-election.
"You're going to have to ask Sen. Corker about what his plans are," McConnell told reporters. McConnell's sidestep is in stark contrast to the public pressure campaign he used to encourage Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to reverse course and run in 2016.
"Sen. Corker, so far as I know, is not running," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., added Tuesday. "I was very disappointed when Sen. Corker decided not to run, but it's a very personal decision. I didn't try to tell him what to do, and I won't try and tell him what to do now."
Alexander praised Blackburn, noting he has supported her in her past congressional races. "I think she is an excellent member of Congress," he said, downplaying concerns of her perceived weakness in a general election fight. "I think she would be a very good candidate."
Tennessee Republicans who are close to Corker say there's been plenty of talk over the past few days about the senator's possible re-entry into the race.
Tom Ingram, a longtime Tennessee GOP consultant who has worked for Corker on past campaigns, said that many people were disappointed and surprised when Corker announced his retirement last fall, but he noted that decision was made when the senator and President Trump were feuding.
While Corker was an early ally of Trump's, he slowly became one of the harshest and most outspoken critics of the Trump administration in 2017, attacking the president's leadership, character — and moral fitness for office.
That relationship has been on the mend recently and Ingram says he is not surprised Corker may be second-guessing that snap decision.
"I think what happened was he made a decision at a moment in time around the dust-up not to run, and then he went back to work and started getting back into the groove of what he does every day, and realized how important it is and how much he's going to miss it and the contribution he can make. And then this groundswell starts and I think it really got his attention," Ingram said. "It's a buzz right now around Washington and down here, and I think he's listening to it."
One reason for that buzz is concern about whether Blackburn would face a competitive race against Bredesen if she were the GOP nominee compared with Corker's general election prospects.
"Marsha's more polarizing, so Bredesen against Blackburn puts the race in play," said Ingram.
A potential unretirement is unusual, but not unprecedented. Rubio, for example, reversed his retirement decision in 2016, after losing the GOP presidential primary, in the face of pressure to reconsider from GOP leaders including McConnell. His reversal protected a vulnerable GOP-held seat and helped Republicans hold their Senate majority.
Corker now faces similar pressures. Senate Republicans are decidedly on offense in 2018 — defending just eight seats against Democrats' 28 seats. But with a slim 51-49 majority, nothing can be taken for granted.
Democrats eye Tennessee
Democrats need to pick up two seats — and suffer no losses — to win a majority in the Senate. Their best prospects for doing so are in Nevada and Arizona, but those are not guarantees. The open seat in Tennessee is the only realistic option for a third target at this time. It's a long shot, but also a long shot that is clearly making some Republicans nervous.
Democrats are also defending four toss-up seats in Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia and Minnesota, according to the Cook Political Report. And Republicans are also targeting competitive seats held by Democrats in Florida and North Dakota, as well as possibly Maine, Ohio, Montana and possibly elsewhere.
So as many targets as Democrats can put on the map, the better their chances.
Corker has some time to make up his mind — Tennessee's filing deadline for candidates is April 5. His toughest challenge in re-entering the race may be the amount of crow he would have to eat to win a GOP primary in a state where President Trump remains popular and where primary opponents like Blackburn remain steadfastly loyal behind Trump.
If Corker gets back into the race, he'll have to emphasize how much he has repaired his relationship with Trump, said Mark Braden, a Republican strategist who managed Corker's last re-election campaign.
"I think they've made amends," Braden said. "If Sen. Corker runs, he would certainly have to highlight ways to show Tennesseans he and the president are on good terms and can work together."
Corker will also have to explain to voters why he wants to stay in the Senate after all. In September, Corker had made it quite clear he was tired of being a senator.
But then again, so did Rubio.