By Jim EllisDec. 19, 2018 — Last week, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R) campaign released an internal survey that tested the three-term incumbent’s favorability ratings, which showed excellent results. Accompanying the release was the senator’s promise to announce his 2020 re-election decision before the end of the year.
He kept the announcement promise, but his decision, which he announced Monday, proved surprising. Spending the money to conduct a poll and releasing the strong results is usually a prelude to announcing for re-election, but not in this case; Sen. Alexander made public his decision to retire in 2020.
Tennessee voters will now elect another new senator for the second time in a two-year cycle. Sen. Bob Corker’s (R) retirement this year opened the door for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) to win the open 2018 campaign, but now potential Senate candidates will immediately get another chance.
Tennessee’s vote history suggests that the eventual Republican nominee will begin the 2020 general election cycle in the favorite’s position. This year, Democrats fielded arguably their best possible candidate, former two-term Gov. Phil Bredesen, who left office with very favorable ratings and a strong record. But, even after matching Blackburn in spending, the former governor fell 55-44 percent in the general election. The result will likely dampen Democratic prospects for 2020.
Among Republicans, we might see some familiar faces from the 2018 statewide cycle. Though outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam did not run for the open Senate seat this year, he would naturally be considered a major contender if he wants to seek the office in 2020. But there is no indication at this time that he would make another electoral run.
In the governor’s Republican primary completed last August, businessman Bill Lee defeated US Rep. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), Randy Boyd (now the interim president of the University of Tennessee system), and the former Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner, and state house speaker, Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). Any or all of the losing gubernatorial contenders could reasonably be considered as viable 2020 US Senate candidates.
Others that could come to the forefront are incoming freshman US Rep. Mark Green (R-Clarksville), who was appointed as US Army secretary but withdrew when confirmation appeared unlikely, in addition to congressmen David Kustoff (R-Germantown) and Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga). Former congressman Stephen Fincher, who for a time was running against Blackburn in the 2018 race, is another potential 2020 Republican statewide candidate.
Lamar Alexander is the only person in Tennessee history to be elected both governor and senator. He served two terms as governor, the first in history to do so, but mostly because Tennessee limited its governors to one term of service until 1978.
In the early 90’s, Alexander served President George H.W. Bush as secretary of education. He was then elected to the Senate in 2002 with a 54-44 percent victory over US Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville). The senator was re-elected in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote, and again in 2014 scoring a 62-32 percent victory margin. His 2008 election marked the first time in Tennessee electoral history that a US Senate candidate had received more than 1.5 million votes.
Alexander’s Senate career included serving as chairman of the Republican Conference for five years. He currently chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, a position he has held since the beginning of 2015. The senator will complete the current term and leave office at the beginning of 2021.