Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will not run for reelection after reconsidering his decision last fall to retire, his chief of staff said Tuesday.
After listening to some Tennessee Republicans and GOP senators who were privately urging him to run, the two-term senator and Foreign Relations Committee chairman decided that this will be his last year as senator, said Todd Womack, Corker’s chief of staff. The move ends a period of intense speculation in Tennessee and Washington about Corker’s future and avoids what could have been an ugly primary between Corker and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
“He’s always believed and served as though he were only going to be in the Senate for two terms,” Womack said in an interview. “And he was willing to listen to folks but he really believes the decision he made in September was the right one and is going to be leaving the Senate at the end of the year.”
Corker has been speaking to President Donald Trump with some frequency in recent weeks after a tense back-and-forth between the two last fall. The White House made clear to the senator’s team that the president would not get involved in a potential primary between Corker and Blackburn, according to a source familiar with the conversations.
Republican strategists believe Corker might have needed an endorsement from Trump to reenter the race and beat Blackburn. Corker’s numbers among Republicans took a hit after the October row, when Trump dubbed the Tennessee senator “Liddle Bob Corker” and “incompetent” after Corker called the White House an “adult day care center” and worried that Trump was putting the United States “on the path to World War III.”
Recent polls by groups supporting Blackburn showed her with a significant advantage over Corker, though a presidential endorsement could have changed the trajectory of the race.
Womack said that there was a “pathway” to the GOP nomination but it didn’t override Corker’s view that legislating is “best done when you get in … and then get out to let somebody else serve.”
“We spent the past two weeks laying out a path and there certainly was one,” Womack said. “What he would tell you is that serving in the Senate has been the privilege of his lifetime and when people approach you and ask you to reconsider you certainly do it.”
Corker said little in recent days as he listened to allies who wanted him to run for reelection, though he certainly kept his options open. Notably, he voted for Trump’s immigration plan and voted down a bipartisan compromise bill that the White House was urging the Senate to defeat.
It’s not clear if Corker will make an endorsement in the race, which has a filing deadline of April 5. Blackburn has no real opposition after former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) dropped out of the race and urged Corker to run against Blackburn earlier this month.
Democrats and some Republicans believe former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) poses a formidable challenge to Blackburn, a hard-charging conservative backed by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund. An internal poll obtained by POLITICO earlier this month showed Bredesen narrowly edging out Blackburn, 47-45.
Some Republicans believed Corker would have an easier road in a general election against Bredesen, a former two-term governor who catered to the state’s moderate Republican voters. Still, Blackburn is also a formidable fundraiser, and Tennessee has turned much more conservative since Bredesen left office in 2011. And Bredesen may struggle to obtain financial support from national Democrats given the 10 Senate Democratic incumbents running for reelection in states that Trump won.
And even as Corker mulled running again, Blackburn never wavered from a race that threatened to become a spectacular and resource-draining GOP primary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee would have been under pressure to support Corker, and conservative groups like the Club for Growth indicated they would continue to help Blackburn.
“It would be a sad way for him to end his career — to end up being defeated,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh in an interview earlier this month.
Corker will likely wind down his Senate term with improved relations with Trump, however. The two have spent significant time in recent weeks rehabilitating their mercurial relationship, which deteriorated after Trump considered Corker to be his vice president and then secretary of state. At last month's World Economic Forum in Davos, Corker praised Trump, telling attendees that the president’s unpredictability can be “helpful in negotiations.”