Republicans are increasingly unnerved by the rift between retiring Sen. Bob Corker and Marsha Blackburn, the GOP congresswoman vying to replace him, saying it could cost them a must-win seat in Tennessee.
The duo’s chilly relationship has spilled into the open after Corker praised Blackburn’s Democratic opponent and refused to even utter her name in multiple media appearances this spring. The retiring senator’s remarks have boosted former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and agitated Blackburn’s supporters, who want Corker to help heal the state party, not inflame its divisions.
Corker’s lukewarm support for Blackburn is more than an annoyance: The center-right coalition he represents is critical to Blackburn’s prospects in the race. But Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans are generally fond of Bredesen and his past stint as the state’s governor, seeing him as a pragmatic get-things-done kind of pol, as opposed to a hard-edged conservative ideologue in Blackburn.
“He’s a person that would get things done,” Tom Cigarran, a former Corker donor and chairman of the Nashville Predators hockey team, said of Bredesen in an interview Wednesday. “Marsha Blackburn, not so much.” Cigarran, who credited Bredesen with revitalizing downtown Nashville and reforming Medicaid, is backing the former Democratic governor and said people in his social and political circles are, too — “unless they are far-right fanatics.”
There are others. Colleen Conway-Welch, the widow of prominent GOP fundraiser Ted Welch, held a fundraiser for Bredesen in February. And Autozone founder Pitt Hyde, a reliable Republican donor from Memphis, is considering supporting Bredesen, according to two GOP sources familiar with the talks. Hyde did not return a request for comment.
The drama between Blackburn and Corker, combined with Bredesen’s crossover appeal, hint at a potential train wreck for Republicans in November that could swing the narrowly divided Senate to Democrats. Recent public and private polls show Bredesen leading Blackburn, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, in a state that went for Trump by 26 points in 2016. Supporters argue that there’s still plenty of time for her to catch up before November and that she has backing from the vast majority of the state’s Republican officials.
But Republicans in Washington and Tennessee worry that Corker’s Bredesen-friendly comments amount to a tacit permission for pragmatic-minded GOP voters to cross the aisle. They want Corker to go to bat for Blackburn or sit out the contest entirely.
“I have no idea whether it’s gender or personality or whatever issue, but I think that it is inappropriate for him to be doing what he’s doing,” said Rep. Diane Black, a Tennessee Republican running for governor, about Corker’s comments. “If nothing else, I think he should just sit back and be quiet.”
Corker said he’d be just fine with that: “I’d be more than glad to stop talking about it. So I guess I will.”
Several Tennessee operatives said the Corker-Blackburn divide is emblematic of the party’s split between younger activist conservatives and older pragmatists. Bredesen has a chance, they said, as long as he appeals to moderate Republicans who are turned off by Blackburn’s style.
“She’s got a lot of work to do,” said Mark Braden, who ran Corker’s 2012 campaign but also supports Blackburn.
“[These] are people that want to see things get done,” said one Tennessee GOP leader who won’t support Blackburn and asked for anonymity to speak frankly. “They’d like to see more bipartisanship and they don’t view her as capable of doing that.”
Blackburn’s campaign argues that the race will hinge on Bredesen’s fealty to Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), not the party’s internal turmoil.
“Our campaign is working hard to unify the Republican party, while Phil Bredesen will be a solid vote for Chuck Schumer and Obama, Clinton-era liberal policies, and Tennesseans are not interested in that,” said Abbi Sigler, a spokeswoman for Blackburn.
Meanwhile in Washington, a damage-control campaign is underway. Blackburn’s political allies have encouraged her to reach out to more centrist Republicans back home, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scolded Corker about his public display of affection for Bredesen.
Corker was infuriated by the airing of the party’s dirty laundry. In an interview, he called the leak of his conversation with McConnell to The Washington Post political “malpractice.”
Still, Corker is taking small steps toward Blackburn. He appeared alongside her last week at the Hamilton County Lincoln Day dinner. And he’s started using Blackburn’s name instead of awkwardly calling her the “nominee” or “this person.”
“I plan to vote for her. I’ve said nice things about a friend [Bredesen]. But it’s just the way I am,” Corker said in the interview. “I’ve had a long relationship with him and have a respect for him and would always say nice things about him, but I’m supporting Marsha Blackburn.”
Corker’s allies are also downplaying suggestions that the sitting senator is intentionally causing trouble for Blackburn, who along with Black has a chance to be the first Republican woman elected statewide in Tennessee.
Braden said Corker isn’t someone whose instincts are that “we’ve got to put our red shirt on and go against the blue shirts.’ But he’s never thought that way. He’s a very apolitical person.” Braden said,
Bredesen’s close personal relationship with Corker is also a complicating factor. The two grew up in politics together, with Corker serving as state commissioner of finance while Bredesen was Nashville mayor in the mid-’90s. When Corker was mayor of Chattanooga, Bredesen was in the governor’s mansion. They've worked together on infrastructure, teamed to bring the Tennessee Titans to Nashville and held private meetings at Corker’s home as they tried to lure a Volkswagen plant to the state.
Corker and Blackburn, by contrast, have little shared history. Though both have employed prominent GOP strategist Ward Baker, Corker and Blackburn have barely worked together during their decade-long overlap in Congress, according to multiple Republicans who know both of them.
The two diverge ideologically and temperamentally: Blackburn is a partisan political combatant and Fox News regular who has led investigations into Planned Parenthood; Corker is beloved by Democrats for cutting deals and has occasionally and pointedly criticized Trump in his trademark twang.
The tensions between the two and their allies have been growing for months. It started before Corker’s retirement announcement, when Blackburn privately floated the possibility of running for Senate to Tennessee acquaintances, without naming Corker specifically. As Corker deliberated retirement, he made clear to allies and state Republicans that he preferred that GOP Gov. Bill Haslam succeed him. Blackburn was barely on his radar.
When he decided to retire, Corker called Blackburn, Haslam and former Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) before he made his announcement in order to allow them time to prepare themselves, Corker said. Haslam declined to run and Fincher’s campaign flamed out, while Blackburn leapt at the opportunity and immediately posted big fundraising numbers.
Then in February, Blackburn remained in the race as Corker‘s supporters tried to draft him back by circulating polls suggesting Bredesen could beat Blackburn. The president and Corker’s Senate colleagues declined to publicly urge him to reverse himself. And Blackburn’s spokeswoman said at the time that only a “sexist pig” would think that she couldn’t defeat Bredesen.
After two months of relative quiet, the breach between the two has re-emerged this spring. In April, after cutting Blackburn a campaign check and giving her a tepid endorsement, Corker called Bredesen an “outstanding public servant.” Bredesen promptly raised money off Corker’s remarks and Blackburn has been “mad as a damn hornet at Corker” since then, according to one Republican who knows and supports her.
The only reason Blackburn has not hit back at Corker is that it could backfire with the very people in her party that she needs to win over, this person said.
“If you’re Marsha, your inclination is to go out and blister his ass,” said the Blackburn ally. But that’s “just going to piss off all those people who are already skeptical of her.”
Republicans in Washington are trying to tamp down the dissension, knowing they simply can’t afford to lose the state if they want to have any hope of hanging on to the majority.
“Sen. Corker can say whatever he wants to say,” said Tennesse‘s other Republican senator, Lamar Alexander. “He’s said to me he supports Marsha Blackburn.”
How far that support will go remains to be seen. Asked whether he would campaign for Blackburn, Corker said maybe, “depending on the type of event it was.” But he was more firm about how he would handle his Democratic friend.
“I don’t plan to campaign against Bredesen,” Corker said.