By Jim Ellis
Oct. 2, 2017 — Sen. Bob Corker’s (R) Tuesday retirement announcement has ignited a Tennessee political fire drill.
Several Republican current and former office holders immediately began assessing their own chances of winning the party primary with the hope of succeeding the outgoing senator. For the Democrats, the opposite is occurring as three of the party’s most viable potential candidates quickly declined to run.
For the past several months, Sen. Corker has toyed with the idea of retiring. He would openly contemplate in interviews that he was only assessing whether he should run for a third term and, for a time, appeared to be seriously considering the open governor’s race. He always made a point to say that he hadn’t fully decided to run again, though he always indicated he would likely do so. Early this week, just days after a more conservative candidate who looks to have substantial outside backing formally declared his primary challenge, Sen. Corker announced his ultimate decision to retire.
Hours after the announcement, eight-term US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) confirmed that she is moving toward entering the newly open statewide nomination race and promises to imminently announce her plans. Doing so would open her safely Republican western Tennessee House district that occupies a large portion of the region between Nashville and Memphis. Blackburn’s comments led another potential Senate candidate to say he would lean toward entering an open 7th District congressional campaign should the veteran incumbent launch her statewide effort.
Speculation is brewing that a former congressman already has a statewide support group forming that would back him in a GOP Senate primary. Former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Crockett County) retired from the House after three terms before last November’s election because of a sibling’s illness that affected the Fincher family’s agricultural business. With the enterprise now under firm control, the former congressman appears ready for a return to elective politics.
Both Blackburn and Fincher are immediate credible candidates. Not only do they each have congressional experience, but also have sizable financial resources under their direct control. Rep. Blackburn ended June with over $3.1 million in her congressional committee, all of which she can transfer into a Senate campaign. Fincher retired with just under $2.4 million in his account meaning these two potential Senate candidates have a strong financial base from which to raise major statewide resources.
Perhaps, in a surprising turn of events for some, Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who is ineligible to seek a third term, is quickly confirming that he has interest in the Corker seat and will soon make a decision and announcement. This follows his immediate quip when reporters asked him if he would enter the open race with the phrase, “I love my current job.”
Andy Ogles is the Tennessee chair of Americans for Prosperity who twice unsuccessfully ran for the state legislature. With former White House Advisor Steve Bannon returning to Breitbart News and pledging to put serious money into conservative primary challengers, it is Ogles who is in position to take advantage of this evolving situation. It was believed that as much as $4 million had been pledged for an outside Super PAC to boost Ogles effort against Sen. Corker. Now that the seat is open, it remains a question mark as to whether the financial backers will continue with Ogles, look for another candidate, or move to another political situation.
State Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), a former Army doctor who served in Iraq, was earlier tabbed to be Secretary of the Army in the Trump Administration. But, uttering some unfortunate comments quickly made confirmation unlikely, so Green withdrew his name. Speculation was swirling that he would enter an open Senate race, but now is indicating he will run for Blackburn’s open House seat should she become a Senate candidate, all of which is now likely.
The Democrats are having the opposite experience. Within a day of Sen. Corker’s announcement, three of their best Senate prospects all publicly declined to run. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last elected Tennessee Democratic governor who left office after two terms at the beginning of 2011, US Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville), a former Senate Democratic nominee, and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, all quickly said they would not run for the Senate. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Deen and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), who are both announced gubernatorial candidates, each indicated he would remain in his current campaign.
On the other hand, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, and businessman and affluent Democratic political donor Bill Freeman are all signaling interest in running. Attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler already has joined the race.
Therefore, we can expect a hotly contested Republican primary opposing a Democratic contingent that lacks major political figures. At least for the short-term, the Tennessee race has quickly transformed from a budding incumbent primary challenge into one of the most interesting national Senate campaigns. There is surely more to come from the Volunteer State now that their political musical chairs game is officially underway.