Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from Gov. Haslam’s office on a potential run for the U.S. Senate.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, announced Tuesday he will not run for re-election in 2018, an admission which sent speculators scrambling, wondering who will replace the conservative committee chair.
Corker has earned the respect of many during his two terms. In the Senate, he worked his way up to assume leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful position. Previously, he had served as mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, using the post as a springboard to launch a successful Senate career.
Tennesseans bleed red both figuratively and literally. The state’s senatorial delegation has been wholly Republican since 1994, and conservatives are a strong political force in the ruby red state on the local level, as well. Now, Tennessee is set to elect its first major federal official since President Donald Trump assumed office.
For his part, Corker began as a vocal supporter of the president — he was vetted as a potential vice-presidential candidate and later appeared on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state. However, the budding political friendship wouldn’t last. In August, Corker infamously said the president needed “radical changes” if he wanted to run a successful White House. Trump wasn’t pleased, his reply foreshadowing Corker’s eventual retirement:
Here’s a look at six candidates who could replace Corker as junior senator from Tennessee:
1. Gov. Bill Haslam, R-Knoxville
To many, Haslam is an obvious contender. He’s term-limited as governor of Tennessee and will be replaced in 2018. Haslam is generally well-liked across the state and won by a landslide in 2014. Granted, the Tennessee Democratic Party is known for running weak candidates, as it did in the 2012 Senate election, so it’s fairly obvious why no Democrat was willing to give Haslam a strong challenge during his gubernatorial re-election campaign.
Haslam would definitely win a third term if he were eligible. However, as a moderate Republican, and a vocal member of Trump’s opposition, he could face headwinds with the broader Republican electorate, which gave Trump more than 60 percent of the state’s popular vote in 2016. While situated to sweep in a general election, Haslam’s center-right status could pose problems in a GOP primary.
If Haslam is elected, both Tennessee senators will be former governors. Senior Sen. Lamar Alexander served as governor from 1979 to 1987 before assuming his current office in 2003.
2. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood
Blackburn is the first major state lawmaker to express interest in Corker’s seat. She has served as a U.S. representative from the 7th District since 2003, representing Nashville suburbs and southwestern parts of the state. She is also the first woman to serve as a U.S. representative from Tennessee. Corker said Wednesday Blackburn has a “real interest” in entering the race.
If I had to guess whom Trump would endorse right now, it would probably be her. Blackburn was vice-chair of Trump’s transition team. She endorsed him in the spring of 2016. She also defended him after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, which showed the future president bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Blackburn is against the Affordable Care Act, does not believe in climate change, rejects the theory of evolution and is anti-abortion. All this seems to add up to a perfect Trump-esque Republican candidate.
3. State Sen. Mark Green, R-Ashland City
Dr. Green is another lawmaker whom Trump would surely endorse. Green was Trump’s original choice for secretary of the army, but he later withdrew himself from consideration. Green is anti-LGBTQ — he has referred to transgenderism as “a disease” and has supported a discriminatory “bathroom bill.” He was also criticized for his insensitive remarks toward Muslims and Latinos.
Green’s legislation in the state Senate has also been highly criticized. He is a biblical creationist who rejects the theory of evolution. This could appeal to the state’s heavily Christian populace. Nor does it hurt that Green is already on Trump’s good side.
Green has already declined a run for governor and says he won’t seek higher office in 2018. However, Corker’s retirement represents a perfect opportunity. Green, at least, will surely consider a run.
Now for a few others who’ve declined to run, but may have been good fits, nonetheless:
4. Peyton Manning
After Jesus, Peyton Manning is the most beloved man in the state of Tennessee. He’s probably even bigger than Elvis. Believe it or not, Manning was floated as a potential candidate to replace Corker. He starred as the quarterback for the Tennessee Volunteers, who have since retired his number, before being drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. Later, he went on to have a Hall of Fame-worthy NFL career.
Manning is active in Republican circles. He previously donated to Corker’s campaign in 2012, as well as Fred Thompson’s political action group and George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign. Manning endorsed Jeb Bush in 2016, and went golfing with Trump in July. He supposedly owns a $800,000 lake house in the Chattanooga area, which could satisfy residency requirements.
Manning is thought to be a very likable, charming guy — and he definitely has the charisma and oratorical abilities of a seasoned politician. Manning wouldn’t even be the first Vols QB to serve as a lawmaker post-retirement; his predecessor Heath Shuler was also a top-three pick in the 1994 NFL Draft, but ended up being a major bust. He later served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a conservative Democrat in his home state of North Carolina from 2007 to 2013.
However, Manning ruled out a run Wednesday. “I certainly have an interest in politics and in our country,” he told Nashville-based WGFX-FM, 104.5 The Zone. “I just have zero interest in being a politician.”
It was a long-shot to begin with, but if Manning changes his mind and runs, he would likely do well on account of name recognition alone. Even Bob Corker said so. However, Corker also said Manning enjoys the private life and doesn’t want him to “fan the flames.”
If Manning did run, it would be just a matter of how hard his opponents hit his history of sexual assault and whether he thinks such criticism is worth the trouble. Again, consider Trump’s performance in 2016; celebrities are entirely capable of winning political office.
5. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville
If Cooper ran, he’d be a shoo-in to get his party’s nomination. Like Marsha Blackburn, he’s served the 5th Congressional District since 2003, after a previous stint in the House from 1983 to 1995. Cooper earned the Democratic nomination in a 1994 special election for the U.S. Senate after Al Gore became vice president, but was handily defeated by Republican Fred Thompson.
As a Democrat in an increasingly red state, it would be incredibly challenging for Cooper to win or even keep a close margin. He probably realizes this. Even as a moderate willing to work across the aisle, it would still be nearly impossible for him to win over the Trump crowd, which has a strong say in state politics right now.
6. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, D-Nashville
I’ll admit, this one’s a bit of a stretch. Bredesen is 73 years old. Like Bill Haslam, he was a two-term governor, serving from 2003 to 2011. Like Cooper, he’s a moderate Democrat. Bredesen was also mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999, prior to becoming governor. He is known for bringing the Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators to town, and is an avid hunter, which could have potentially aided a senatorial run.
CNN’s Chris Cillizza thinks Bredesen would have a good shot at winning the seat, but I’m doubtful of any Democrat’s chances in the state’s current political climate.
And… the field
With many Republicans, such as U.S. Rep. Diane Black and businessman Bill Lee, eyeing a run for the governor’s mansion, the field is narrowed quite a bit. So far, perennial candidate Larry Crim and conservative activist Andy Ogles, both Republicans, have declared their candidacies for Corker’s seat. Corker also name-dropped former Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Memphis, who did not run in 2016 for his seat. He doesn’t even have a website right now, but will supposedly decide if he’ll throw his hat into the ring by Friday.
A retired UPS mechanic and James Mackler, a Nashville attorney, are running for the Democratic nomination. I don’t see either of these candidates getting the party nomination if a candidate with more name-brand recognition runs against them. The Democrats aren’t yet poised to offer a strong alternative to the Republican field. It’d also take quite a lot for the Republicans to lose in such deep-red territory — it’s as simple as that.
It’s pretty clear Trump will have an effect on the election, and whomever he endorses will receive a substantial boost. However, I think a candidate who acts more like Trump as opposed to a candidate whom Trump verbally endorses will have a better shot at winning. It wouldn’t surprise me if a complete no-name outsider comes out and wins.
For example, consider Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Alabama, which my colleague Aristophanes explains in a separate post. Trump half-heartedly endorsed the incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange, but Roy Moore, a horse-riding cowboy who was twice ousted from the Alabama Supreme Court, won anyway, and by a decent margin. Moore strongly supports fundamentalist Christian principles — reflective of a group which strongly supports Trump — particularly homophobia and preferential legal status for his religion over others.
That is to say, it was more helpful to espouse anti-establishment and populist views, as Trump often does, than to receive the president’s endorsement directly. It’s not only what Trump says through words, but what he says through his actions, as well, that really matters. Trumpism is a religion that can surely survive the rough-and-tumble, even without its patron saint calling the shots. ■