A follow-up to yesterday’s post about the mystery of Corker’s sudden change of heart. Why on earth would this guy want to return to the Senate, I wondered, knowing that he’s likely to be in the minority sooner rather than later and will be dealing with Trumpsanity on Twitter and beyond until 2021 at the earliest?
Answer: He doesn’t really want to return to the Senate. This is, apparently, a replay of the Rubio recruitment effort in 2016. Rubio wanted to retire from the Senate, lick his wounds after a bruising presidential primary, then head off into a lucrative private-sector career for awhile as he plotted his eventual return to politics (presumably with a gubernatorial run in Florida). The problem was that none of the Republicans angling to replace him as Senate nominee looked likely to beat the Democratic challenger, then-Rep. Patrick Murphy, especially with Trump headed to probable defeat in Florida against Clinton. So McConnell and the rest of the GOP leadership begged and pleaded and twisted Rubio’s arm until he agreed to change his mind and run again. Result: He won by eight points on the same day that Trump was a surprise winner in Florida by less than two. The seat, and the Senate, were saved.
And now here we are again.
The poll, conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies for a Tennessee business group and obtained by POLITICO, shows [Democrat Phil] Bredesen up 47 to 45 [over Marsha Blackburn], despite a sample that was overweighted with Republicans. The survey shows that voters preferred a generic Republican over a Democrat and strongly approved of Trump, signs that even in a Republican-leaning state like Tennessee, Blackburn is in for a tough race…
The distaste for Blackburn in some parts of the party is driving the campaign to recruit Corker to get back in. Those Republicans argue that she could blow a winnable race, pointing to Bredesen’s coalitions of Republican supporters when he won two gubernatorial races.
“Tennessee by any normal standard is a Republican state. I think it’s only close with Blackburn,” said a top Tennessee Republican urging Corker to get back in. “The problem is Marsha’s a polarizing force. Her nomination is the only path to put this race in play.”
Well, it’s just one poll. Bredesen doesn’t really stand a chance in ruby-red Tennessee, does he? Don’t be so sure, wrote elections analyst David Byler in the Weekly Standard last month. Between his name recognition as a former governor and a national climate that favors Democrats, Bredesen will be competitive:
The most important factor for Bredesen is that he will likely be running in a much more Democratic national environment than Bayh and Strickland—or even Kerrey in 2012—did. It’s possible to imagine Bredesen outperforming a generic Democrat at a time when the national conditions favor the blue team. And if he performs well in the state’s major metro areas (something other Democrats appear to have done in 2017) while clawing back some ground in the rest of the state, it’s possible to imagine him winning.
Democrats are targeting Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona and Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada as their two best pick-up opportunities this fall. Even if they flip both, though, to win a Senate majority they’d need every last one of their red-state Democrats to win too — a very tall order, even when voters are trending blue. The difference between a 50/50 Senate and a 51/49 Democratic majority may be Tennessee. That’s why people are leaning on Corker to reconsider.
But it won’t be as easy for him as it was for Rubio. When Rubio un-retired, the Senate primary field cleared for him. The party unified behind him. That won’t happen if Corker jumps back in. Blackburn is obviously in this race to stay, believing — probably correctly — that she could run to Corker’s right in the primary and defeat him. The only thing that might prevent that is Trump jumping in on Corker’s side against Blackburn, but think how awkward that would be. He’d have to side with a guy who’s insulted him publicly, and whom the right wasn’t crazy about in the first place due to his efforts to shepherd Obama’s Iran nuclear deal through the Senate, against a figure in Blackburn who’s embraced him.
It’d be Luther Strange vs. Roy Moore all over again except the base in this case would be more antagonistic to Corker than they were to Strange. Trump would risk being humiliated if Blackburn won the primary despite his opposition, and the party’s chances of holding the seat could be badly damaged depending upon how nasty the Corker/Blackburn primary got. If Corker did eke out a win in the primary, for instance, populist Blackburn fans might feel embittered and decide to punish him by staying home for the general election. There’s a case to be made, I think, that a Corker/Blackburn primary would be so cutthroat that the GOP would stand a better chance of holding the seat by letting Blackburn have the nomination and focusing on Bredesen than by sending Corker into battle and expecting him to defeat both of them.
Which is why, I think, he’ll end up deciding not to un-retire after all. Without Trump’s enthusiastic support he has no guarantee of even making it to the general election. And even if he did make it and held off Bredesen, what would his reward be? Having to hand over his Foreign Relations Committee gavel to some Democrat when the blue wave strikes elsewhere this fall? Not worth it.
Update: If this is how nasty it is *now*, imagine what an actual campaign would look like.
“Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig,” Blackburn campaign spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said in a phone interview. “She’s the best fundraiser in the country and is beating Phil Bredesen in several polls. We aren’t worried about these ego-driven, tired old men. Marsha has spent her whole life fighting people who told her she wasn’t good enough, and she will do it again.”