Influential conservatives in Washington are coalescing behind Rep. Marsha Blackburn, as Republicans jockey to succeed Sen. Bob Corker in deep red Tennessee.
The Club for Growth spoke favorably of a possible Blackburn Senate candidacy on Friday. David Bossie, the close confidant of President Trump who runs Citizens United, indicated the same day that he would like to see Blackburn become the consensus conservative candidate in the August 2018 Republican primary.
"We are very encouraged that Congresswoman Blackburn is inching toward getting into the race," Bossie told the Washington Examiner. "Others are going to have to take a very close look at the race with her in it. I would think there will not be much oxygen for others to get in."
Indirectly, additional momentum for Blackburn could come from brothers Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who control a network of conservative advocacy groups.
The Kochs have no plans to endorse the congresswoman and usually stay out of Republican primaries. But they oppose one of her potential rivals for the Senate nomination, Republican former Rep. Stephen Fincher, and are prepared to deploy their political muscle to defeat him.
"There have been many quality candidates suggested that are considering running for Bob Corker's seat. Stephen Fincher is not one of them," James Davis, executive vice president of the Koch brothers umbrella group, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, said. "Should he try to return to Congress, we will make sure Tennesseans are fully aware of his record."
Fincher served three terms in the House before retiring in 2016. Davis explained the Kochs' opposition to Fincher stems from his support for farm subsidies and reauthorizating the Export Import Bank. "Fincher is an exceptionally bad candidate, the definition of cronyism," Davis said.
Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman, announced Sept. 26 that he would retire next year, upon the conclusion of his second term. Blackburn, 65, was to spend the weekend discussing with her family whether to run. In office since winning her House seat in 2002, Blackburn has warm relations with Trump and is a popular figure on the Right, while still maintaining amicable ties to the Republican political establishment.
Her lifetime score with Club for Growth is 90 percent.
The old guard free market advocacy organization hosted one of its regular meetings of the major conservative political groups at its headquarters in Washington on Friday, where the Tennessee race was to be discussed.
Specifically, they want to avoid multiple conservatives running and dividing up that portion of the vote and making way for a centrist to win the primary. Tennessee doesn't hold runoffs like other Southern states; the top vote getter can proceed to the general election with less than 50 percent.
"Gov. [Bill] Haslam is a very definition of establishment candidate who will fall in line with" Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Andy Roth, Club for Growth's vice president of government affairs. Blackburn is an attractive candidate, Roth added, calling her lifetime score with the group "pretty good."
Corker's lifetime Club score is 80 percent. Not horrible, but the career businessman was a pragmatist and a McConnell ally who was regularly at the center of bipartisan negotiations with the Democrats.
Conservative insiders had been eying Corker as a possible incumbent to target, in part because Tennessee is overwhelmingly Republican and the winner of the GOP primary is likely to win the general election and hold the seat without much pressure from the Democrats, and they wanted his seat to be a more reliably right-of-center vote in the Senate.
They were also interested in challenging Corker as part of their rivalry with McConnell and broader proxy war for control of the Republican Party.
No Tennessee conservative strong enough to oust Corker was willing to challenge him in the primary. Now, with his seat open, they're hoping to install one of their own. Haslam and Fincher, mentioned as possible candidates, don't fit what they're looking for; Blackburn does.
"I think she has every reason to run and will have significant support if and when she does. She has built up real equity with conservatives over a 25-year career," Brad Todd said.