The effort to draft Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., back into the 2018 Senate race is missing one critical player: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who remains satisfied with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the incumbent’s presumptive successor.
As Corker confirmed he was reconsidering retirement, allies claimed top Republicans in Washington and Tennessee had asked him to run for re-election because of fresh anxiety about Blackburn’s viability. But insiders connected to GOP leadership described supposed concerns about Blackburn as nonexistent.
“Everyone tried hard to get him to run for re-election, and he decided to say ‘no.’ The party had to move on,” a knowledgeable Republican operative said. “There was no clamor for anything."
Late Wednesday, after this story originally posted, a second Republican operative familiar with the matter argued otherwise, telling the Washington Examiner that both McConnell and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, "have asked Corker if there was any chance he would reconsider his decision not to run."
Fueling the infighting was apparent confusion surrounding a private survey, conducted by veteran Republican pollster Glen Bolger. The poll showed Blackburn losing to presumptive Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen, a former governor. Bredesen led Blackburn in the January poll 47 percent to 45 percent, according to Politico, which obtained the survey.
Raising eyebrows in particular was a focus on the survey’s demographic sample.
In order to poll both the general election and the Republican primary, Bolger loaded up the sample of respondents with more self-identified GOP voters than he would have otherwise. But some interpreted Blackburn’s performance as lackluster in spite of the poll’s oversampling of Republicans.
In a Republican-leaning state like Tennessee that is also favorably disposed toward President Trump, that would be a problem for Blackburn, and might have suggested weakness. But as Bolger said in a post on Twitter, that that analysis of his survey was incorrect.
“My poll in Tennessee did not have ‘a sample that was over-weighted with Republicans.’ It had a GOP oversample for primary questions, which doesn’t impact the general election,” he said.
Bolger declined to discuss the poll further, telling the Washington Examiner in an email exchange that his client, whom he would not reveal, has barred him from discussing the survey.
Top Republican leaders, including McConnell and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as senior Blackburn advisors, some of whom were working for Corker’s re-election campaign before he pulled the plug, are baffled by suggestions that the congresswoman is putting this race in jeopardy.
She has hit all of the metrics set for her campaign, launched only after Corker bowed out last fall. Her fundraising is strong, she is organizing on the ground, and she has the consensus support of the Republican establishment in Washington and the conservative grassroots in Tennessee long unhappy with Corker.
Blackburn also happens to be a woman. That matters because the Republican Party is lacking female candidates — capable or otherwise — in an election cycle in which the GOP’s biggest vulnerability is a weakness among educated, suburban white women — just like Blackburn.
“We simply haven’t been involved there; we haven’t been involved,” Gardner said Wednesday when asked if he had concerns about Blackburn or was involved in coaxing Corker out of retirement.
Corker’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The Blackburn campaign made clear the congresswoman would not drop out of the Aug. 2 primary. The filing deadline to run for Senate in Tennessee is April 5.
“She is 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,” Blackburn campaign spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said.
The biggest impediment to Corker running for re-election is Trump.
Republicans in Tennessee like the president, and Corker just before he announced his retirement feuded openly with him, referring to the White House as an adult daycare center, among other attacks that Trump returned in kind.
That didn’t help his relationship with Republican primary voters, which was already strained. Indeed, multiple polls have shown Blackburn would bury Corker in the primary. In the latest survey from a group backing Blackburn, Senate Conservatives Fund, she led the senator 49 percent to 26 percent. Former Rep. Stephen Fincher garnered 9 percent.
But Corker allies insist that Blackburn is more vulnerable than she appears — and that the movement to recruit the senator into the race is deeper than it appears. (Republicans connected to leadership argue the effort is basically a creation of Corker; Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.)
“I would remind you and those folks [supporting Blackburn] that there are two people in the race now. Fincher isn’t to be just sneezed at,” said Tom Ingram, Alexander’s former chief of staff. “As long as Bob Corker would consider being in the Senate I would encourage him; I make no bones about that but that has nothing to do with [Alexander.”]