Let’s end the speculation. Tennessee’s next senator is as good as elected.
Outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is considering a 2020 run for the seat of Sen. Lamar Alexander, a fellow Republican who announced his retirement early last week. However, Haslam says he will hold off on making a final decision until after he leaves the governor’s mansion in less than a month.
Let’s not be coy here. Haslam will run, and he’s going to win.
As a two-term governor, Haslam has more name-brand recognition than any other statewide officeholder. He is a stronger candidate than Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn, who trounced her Democratic opponent in the 2018 Senate race. And he boasts an extraordinary approval rating; according to Morning Consult, one of the most accurate polling sites during the 2016 presidential election, Haslam held the 11th highest approval rating of United States governors this October.
The governor’s office claims the state enjoyed historically low unemployment rates under Haslam’s watch while securing “the largest tax cut in Tennessee history.” Even his harshest critics can get behind his dedication to education, with Tennessee recently launching a tuition-free community college program for adults. That program is an expansion of the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, introduced in 2015, which offers free community college tuition for all in-state high school graduates.
In Haslam’s 2014 re-election campaign, he won with more than 70 percent of the vote. It’s also worth considering Democrats offered only token opposition in that year’s race. With Haslam’s strong approval, and Democrats’ 2018 Senate drubbing, the party may not seriously contest the 2020 Senate race, either.
Tennessee is no longer a two-party state. Haslam will sail to the Republican nomination, and the general election will be nothing less than a formality.
It’s not uncommon for former or current governors to become strong Senate candidates. A state’s top executive position, which is ordinarily term-limited, is often seen as a proving ground for aspirants to federal office. Alexander himself served as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. Florida Sen.-elect Rick Scott is on the tail-end of his final gubernatorial term. And then there’s Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who recently won his first term as senator from Utah. When Haslam becomes a senator, he will join a body with its fair share of former governors.
For what it’s worth, I do believe Haslam will make a decent senator. In deep-red Tennessee, electing a moderate conservative with previous government experience is about the best outcome liberals can hope for in their Senate representation. The responsible Haslam will be a much better senator than his future colleague, Blackburn, who is an unabashed Trump-loving archconservative. In fact, during the 2018 campaign, Haslam seemed uncomfortable enough with Blackburn’s candidacy that he never officially declared whether he voted for the Republican nominee at all.
Other candidates who may also make a run for Senate include:
— Rep.-elect Mark Green, a doctor who has made supportive comments of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories (views Alexander does not share)
— Outgoing Rep. Diane Black, another surefire Trump lapdog whom I floated as a potential candidate after her third-place finish in the August GOP gubernatorial primary
— Current U.S. ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who served in Haslam’s first cabinet but, as with Green and Black, is starkly Trumpist
Of all the potential candidates, Haslam is the best fit to serve Tennessee’s interests in the United States Senate. While that’s not an endorsement, it’s an admission that Haslam is more suitable than any viable alternative. ■