There’s a certain sadness within the Tennessee Republican Party, where loyalists suddenly have found themselves in mourning for the Campaign That Could Have Been.
Former state finance commissioner Bob Corker, a failed 1994 U.S. Senate candidate who’s been talking enthusiastically about running for governor for more than two years now, has pulled a Purcell. He’s taken himself out of the 2002 governor’s race and instead announced a run for Chattanooga mayor.
The difference, with all due respect to Nashville Mayor Bill Purcellwho did the same thing on the Democratic side in 1998is that Corker had the wind at his back. He had the money, the support, the frontrunner status. In Purcell’s case, the headwinds for a statewide office were substantial.
Ironically, the very character traits that make Corker a compelling political candidate apparently tugged at his conscience to keep him out of the statewide contest. “I certainly always thought that if I ever ran for public office again, I would run for governor because I understand state government,” Corker told the Scene. “But at the end of the day, I knew what was about to happen. I was getting ready to be an absentee dad, and I just didn’t want to do it. My kids are 12 and 11, and I just couldn’t do it.”
Instead, the 48-year-old Corker has announced he’ll run for Chattanooga mayor in March, a job that would keep him home with his two girls and still allow him to make those soccer games. “Several folks decided not to do it, and it just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says. Even Corker seems surprised by his decision, given that he’s more accustomed to being a kingmaker in the relatively small community of Chattanooga than in being a king. Sources say he was prepared to back a candidate who decided not to make the race.
An affordable-housing advocate and real estate businessman, Corker is the clear favorite, but he isn’t the only man in the race. Erlanger Medical Center executive Irwin Overton, 58, is also running to succeed Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, who has announced he will not run again. Still, if Corker loses, he says he’s not running for governor.
Corker’s announcement has thrown GOP operatives into a bit of a tailspin, particularly because, as recently as a few weeks ago, Corker was still letting on that he wanted to be Sundquist’s successor.
“I think it shakes things up substantially,” says Mark Tipps, a Nashville attorney and go-to Republican who’s worked for both U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. “I do think Bob would have been the frontrunner, and I think it would have been tough for anybody to have knocked him off. And when you couple that with the fact that he had his own money, he was the man to beat.”
State Republican Party chairman Chip Saltsman notes that there are other qualified Republicans thinking about the raceincluding GOP congressmen Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant and Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Baxterbut he concedes “there were a lot of people who did consider him the quote-unquote frontrunner.”
“We’re still a while away before the election starts up in earnest,” Saltsman adds. “I think Bob made this decision based on his children. I think his time in Nashville kind of gave him some insight that it’s hard to be a governor with a young family. Lamar [Alexander] did a great job doing it, but it’s not easy.”
Hilleary probably stands to gain the most from Corker’s withdrawal from the governor’s race, and while he is well liked within the Republican Party and known for being a diligent, hardworking foot soldier, Republicans say privately they worry that he simply wouldn’t be that compelling a statewide candidate. Meanwhile, neither Bryant nor Baxter is known across the whole state.
For those reasons, The Corker Surprise could leave the Republican Party more vulnerable to potential Democratic candidates such as congressman Bob Clement and John Tanner, unless....
The wild card
GOP Sen. Fred Thompson, the man who’s collected more statewide votes than any candidate in the history of Tennessee politics, still hasn’t rejected the notion of a gubernatorial run. “He’s still a wild card,” Chip Saltsman says. “There are a lot of people who say if Fred runs, Fred wins.”
Even Bob Corker’s “frontrunner” status would have been dust in the wind if Thompson jumped in. “If Thompson runs, all bets are off,” Corker himself says.
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