Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and an early supporter of President Donald Trump, announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election in 2018.
“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," Corker said in a statement. “When I ran for the Senate in 2006, I told people that I couldn’t imagine serving for more than two terms. Understandably, as we have gained influence, that decision has become more difficult."
The stunning announcement comes after weeks of speculation set off when Trump tweeted in late August that Corker had talked to him about stepping aside. Trump’s tweet came after Corker had begun to criticize Trump both on domestic and foreign policy.
“I also believe the most important public service I have to offer our country could well occur over the next 15 months, and I want to be able to do that as thoughtfully and independently as I did the first 10 years and nine months of my Senate career,” Corker said.
As Foreign Relations chairman, Corker criticized Trump’s early handling of a travel ban on individuals from Muslim countries and for his belligerent statements on Twitter, and he has resisted budget cuts to the State Department. He stood by Trump on his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement. During the Obama administration, Corker showed a knack for bipartisanship and worked with Democrats to ratify a strategic arms agreement with Russia and renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
First elected in 2006, Corker has established himself one of the leading deficit hawks in Congress, fighting for a cap on federal spending. He struck a compromise deal this month on the upcoming budget, however, which would allow Republicans to add up to $1.5 trillion to the deficit through tax cuts.
A member of the Senate Banking Committee, Corker co-authored some elements of the 2010 Dodd Frank financial overhaul law.
Corker’s retirement will set off a scramble for his seat that could see a reliable establishment vote be replaced by a Trump-style populist.
Corker had been facing a primary challenge from conservative activist Andy Ogles, a former state leader of Koch Brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity. On Sept. 18, Ogles’ campaign announced it hired Innovative Politics, a political advertising firm that worked for Trump in the general election.
Ogles pointed to Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary in Alabama, where populist challenger Roy Moore appears likely to topple incumbent Luther Strange, who has been backed by Trump.
Corker “saw Alabama, and the polling on the presumptive outcome, and he saw the writing on the wall,” Ogles said in an interview Tuesday. “This is not going to be a good incumbent year out there if you don’t have good, Trumpian conservative values.”
On his campaign website, Ogles features picture of himself with Trump, Newt Gingrich and former conservative Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. He brands himself as "conservative, Christian, Committed."
Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said there is an open governor’s race in Tennessee in 2018, and she would anticipate one or more candidates to drop out to run for the Senate now the Corker is planning an exit. She also said any of Tennessee’s seven Republican House members could enter.
Former state Senator Joe Carr, who ran a Tea Party-backed challenged against Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in 2012, also is a likely candidate, she said.
“Expect a crowded field,” she said.
Corker’s departure could also energize Democrats, although his seat would still remain a long shot for them.
Several Democrats also praised Corker as a thoughtful politician who worked across the aisle.
“I also hope this is a wake-up call to all of us in the Senate that we need to recommit ourselves to creating an environment where reasonable, thoughtful people of both parties can come together to solve problems,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said in a statement.
Prior to his election to Congress, Corker founded his own construction firm and then served as Tennessee’s state finance commissioner and as the mayor of Chattanooga.
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