By Hastings Wyman –
The not-so-surprising announcement last week that US Sen. Bob Corker (R) would not seek reelection next year opens up a major US Senate contest in the South. Corker, one of the upper chamber’s most influential lawmakers, was a center-right conservative known for his knowledgeable and effective leadership in foreign affairs – he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – as well as economic policy. It will not be easy to fill his shoes, but at least ten politicos, from both parties, are looking at trying to succeed Corker.
In a state that Donald Trump carried 61% to Hillary Clinton’s 35%, the Republican nominee will be the early favorite, though not a lead pipe cinch. So far only one Republican has announced for Corker’s seat, but that is certain to change shortly.
The announced Republican Senate candidate is Andy Ogles, former executive for Americans for Prosperity in Tennessee. He announced in mid-September that he would challenge Corker in the primary. Ogles, a staunch conservative, has a poor record in previous races; nevertheless Nashville businessman Lee Beaman, a GOP donor, has said that he would raise $4 million to help Ogle’s bid against Corker. Whether Beaman will stick to his pledge now that Corker is out of the race remains to be seen.
At least four other Republicans are considering a run for the open Senate seat.
Governor Bill Haslam (R), a close friend of Corker, would be the automatic frontrunner if he decides to run. He has a good record as governor and a favorable rating of 63%, among the highest in the nation. Forbes once estimated he was worth $2 billion. He has been conservative on a number of issues, including state spending, gay rights and tort reform. However, he has a moderate demeanor and vetoed a bill that would have made the Bible Tennessee’s state book. On the downside, at least in a primary, Haslam backed away from Trump when the Access Hollywood tape came out last year, saying that he would write in the name of another Republican. Haslam, 59, has not said whether he will run.
US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) would also be a strong candidate. “She’ll certainly get a lot of encouragement from Tea Party types. She also has a mainstream following,” says a longtime observer of Volunteer State politics. Blackburn, telegenic and owner of a public relations firm, frequently appears on television espousing conservative positions. She has opposed Obamacare and was the debate manager for an anti-abortion bill. Prior to serving in Congress, Blackburn was a state senator. The speculation is that if Haslam doesn’t run, Blackburn is certain to get in the race. If Haslam decides to run, however, Blackburn may decide to wait and see if US Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) retires in 2020. As for 2018, “If both run, that would be quite a battle, but I’d bet that he would be the favorite.”
Former US Rep. Stephen Fincher, 44, was elected to represent the once- yellow dog Democratic 8th District in Western Tennessee in 2010, the first Republican to represent the district since 1898. He served three terms with a moderately conservative voting record, then decided not to seek reelection. He still has his hand in politics, however, and is serving as co-chair of US Rep. Diane Black’s (R) gubernatorial campaign. He is a highly successful farmer – mostly cotton – from Frog Jump; he is also a gospel singer. He has $2.75 million in his campaign account, which could be transferred to a Senate race if he decides to run.
State Sen. Mark Green (R) has been mentioned as a potential primary foe of Corker. He is a physician and a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghan wars, including serving on the mission to capture Saddam Hussein. Green, 52, is a creationist and a strong social conservative. President Trump nominated him for Secretary of the Army, but the nomination was dropped after Green’s earlier statements on gays and transgender people were publicized. Green is not likely to run if Blackburn does.
While Tennessee is not a fertile field for Democrats, the party has one announced candidate and four others who are thinking about it, including several with noteworthy credentials.
James Mackler has been a candidate for a few months and has been moving around the state “working hard,” says the observer. Mackler is a lawyer and former prosecutor in Nashville and is a former Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq. He is Jewish and is married to a rabbi, which may or may not matter in this Bible-waving state (Tennessee already has two Jewish congressmen.) He has been endorsed by former state Democratic chair Bob Tuke. Mackler has reported raising $450,000.
Four other Democrats have indicated they are interested in the Senate race.
“Bill Freeman is at the top of my list, because he has the financial capability the others don’t have,” says former state Democratic chair Chip Forrester. “He can self-fund and raise money.” Freeman “would be formidable. He’s got a big wallet,” says the knowledgeable observer. Freeman ran for mayor of Nashville in 2015 and came very close to making the runoff. A millionaire, he has long been a fundraiser for Democrats. Because of his television ads in his mayoral race, “He has strong name ID in mid-Tennessee, which is a big swath in the Democratic Primary.”
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, 49, is a former state senator. He was alleged to be involved in a sex scandal in 2016, but was reelected in 2017 with 64% of the vote. He has been instrumental in helping the city get new industries and takes credit for helping bring in 8,000 jobs.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville lawyer, ran for the legislature in 2014, won the primary and was unopposed in the General Election. He was also unopposed in 2016. On his website, he describes himself as “a progressive voice.” In the legislature he has pushed for expansion of Medicaid, among other liberal efforts.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, 40, another Nashville lawyer, is also looking at the race. The Tennessean newspaper says that “Yarbro is considered a top star among a depleted bench for Tennessee Democrats.” He chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus and has also worked for Medicaid expansion in the state.
This contest could well be a barn-burner, at least in the Republican Primary, and a potentially competitive race in the General Election, especially if the money flows to both parties. Stay tuned.