By Paul Kane and Karoun Demirjian | Washington Post
WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., announced Tuesday he will not seek reelection next year, another blow to the Republican establishment on the same day the latest Republican effort to revamp the Affordable Care Act failed.
Corker and other Republican leaders in Congress have come under fire from President Donald Trump and his supporters for not delivering in the early days of the new administration.
Once considered an ally of Trump’s national security team, Corker and Trump traded insults during the August break amid chatter that staunch conservatives would mount a primary challenge to the Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Corker’s retirement will create what is likely to be a highly contested, ideologically driven Republican primary. It also creates a vacuum among Senate Republicans for leaders on national security issues.
“After much thought, consideration and family discussion over the past year, Elizabeth and I have decided that I will leave the United States Senate when my term expires at the end of 2018,” the Chattanooga Republican said in a statement.
Corker comes from his state’s long tradition of establishment Republican figures who went to the Senate with ambitions that went beyond just the state’s expansive borders. Two of the last five Senate GOP leaders have been from Tennessee, while Corker and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are two of the most powerful committee chairmen.
Corker acknowledged that his clout led him to consider breaking his pledge, initially made during his 2006 race, to serve only two terms. “As we have gained influence, that decision has become more difficult. But I have always been drawn to the citizen legislator model,” he said in his statement.
But that wing of the Republican Party has been under assault since the tea party movement took hold seven years ago, and even more so in the Trump era, a time when mild-mannered dealmakers fell out of favor with conservative voters who increasingly preferred angry confrontation over ideological outcome.
Corker faced that back home over the August congressional break, when he questioned Trump’s stability following his response to the race riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. “He has not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great,” he told local reporters.
That prompted taunting tweets from Trump, who said that Corker was “constantly asking me” whether to seek reelection.
Corker revealed his plans to retire just hours after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that he would not hold a vote on the latest bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act because it was destined to fail amid defections from moderate Republicans.
The announcement also came just hours before election results were due in the GOP primary in Alabama, where appointed Sen. Luther Strange, R, had become the underdog against Roy Moore, according to several recent polls. The former state Supreme Court justice’s insurgent campaign against Strange has emboldened the sort of anti-establishment figures who have made McConnell the target of enmity and who were searching for a primary challenge to Corker.
Corker almost retired in 2012, but he was coaxed into running again when it became clear he would become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
There is a growing fear among Senate Republicans that other incumbents will retire or face heated primary challenges next year.
Next year’s Tennessee Senate race will give hard-line conservatives their best chance yet to break through in a state where they have failed in recent GOP primaries for Senate and governor, one of the last holdouts to the tea party wave that has swept other southern states.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., might try to fill the conservative lane. Former representative Steven Fincher, R, who retired last year with $2.4 million remaining in his campaign account, could try to run as a tea party hero – he was the first non-Democrat to win the West Tennessee seat since Davy Crockett – but with establishment help as someone who worked well with Alexander and Corker.
Some will look toward Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback who went to the University of Tennessee and retired in early 2016 from the NFL. Manning is close to Corker, who brought him to a congressional Republican retreat earlier this year.
Corker’s departure will be felt perhaps most acutely in the area of foreign relations, where the Tennessee Republican not only served as his party’s top voice in the Senate, but has for years been celebrated as one of the GOP’s best bipartisan dealmakers.
He established his chops early on in his Senate career, when lawmakers ratified the New START treaty – a strategic arms control pact that regulates the size of the American and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Corker was one of the key GOP players negotiating changes that ended up making it possible to bring more conservative votes on board.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker also tackled nuclear security, linking arms with ranking member Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., to design a bill that gave Congress the opportunity to weigh in on a multilateral deal to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions before it could go into effect.
More recently, Corker has been the chief go-between the White House and Congress when it comes to the looming question of whether the president will certify the Iran deal next month – a decision that could kick off a brutal battle in Congress about whether to reimpose nuclear sanctions against Tehran.
Corker has fallen into the role of liaison between the Trump administration and the Senate on other matters as well, including sanctions, nuclear threats and foreign wars. He speaks with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson constantly, and has frequent contact with the president as well.
At times, that has meant Corker is the one holding the Senate back from tackling issues popular with the rank and file. For months, for example, Corker held back a burgeoning effort to increase sanctions against Russia – something he later explained was to give Tillerson a chance to make a deal with Russia to improve the bleak war in Syria.
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