Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) finds himself squeezed from all sides as President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE’s allies mull the prospect of taking the senator down from his right and as Democrats ready a challenge for the general election.
Corker, once considered a possible pick for vice president, angered Trump allies after criticizing the president for his response to violence at a white supremacist rally last month in Charlottesville, Va.
Corker’s comments prompted a backlash from Trump allies, including former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. Now they’re expressing interest in backing a primary challenge against Corker.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are rallying behind a strong candidate, an Iraq War veteran and defense attorney, to ready for a long-shot campaign that could benefit from a GOP primary fight.
Corker, 65, was mulling retirement even before he faced a primary opponent. But while more establishment Republican observers don’t think Corker is in serious trouble, the prospect of a well-funded challenge could still spell primary trouble.
“The more insurgent, further right-wing of the party hasn’t won statewide yet here — until they do,” said one longtime nonpartisan Tennessee political analyst.
“I see a threat, but I don’t see a real serious threat to Corker just yet.”
Corker, a successful businessman, was one of Trump’s closest confidants in the Senate during the presidential campaign as an informal adviser on foreign policy issues.
A June poll by The Tennessee Star found that 41 percent of Republican primary voters wanted to reelect Corker, while 42 percent wanted someone else to run. Even so, Corker hadn’t been on the radar of Republicans looking to fund primary challenges, with most of the focus landing instead on incumbents like Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerHeller won't say if Biden won election Ex-Sen. Dean Heller announces run for Nevada governor Former Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor MORE (R-Nev.).
That changed after Corker lambasted Trump in the days after his controversial reaction to the violence in Charlottesville last month, where a man with ties to white supremacist groups is accused of killing a counterprotester.
“The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Corker said in August.
While other Republicans criticized Trump, Corker’s comments seemed to question whether Trump is mentally fit to be president — remarks that crossed a line for Trump’s allies.
Those comments also drew a wedge into the relationship between the two politicians. Trump took to Twitter to blast the “strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in ’18. Tennessee not happy.”
Trump’s more conservative allies see Corker’s comments as a betrayal.
Bannon, back atop Breitbart News and at the head of a vast network of conservative donors and activists, including billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer, has floated the idea of supporting primary challengers to Republican senators.
Those talks involve using the pro-Trump Great America PAC as a weapon against the incumbents. One source close to Great America told The Hill the group would “definitely be interested in a primary” against Corker.
“He’s part of a broken system and focuses more on Donald Trump’s rhetoric and completely ignores his agenda and platform — that’s where the frustration lies with most people,” the source said of Corker.
The source floated Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnHouse Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens MORE (R-Tenn.) as an ideal pick for Trump supporters clamoring for a challenge to Corker. Blackburn has another advantage of potential primary rivals: She already has more than $3 million in her campaign account.
But Blackburn declined to challenge Corker in June, leading some to speculate that she’ll only launch a Senate bid if Corker retires.
Trump supporters in Tennessee predict that a primary opponent could use Corker’s Trump criticism against him. Appealing to Trump supporters could go far, they believe, in a state that Trump carried by 26 points in November.
“Corker’s recent public criticism of the president was extremely risky, knowing the president’s high favorables within Corker's constituency,” said Scottie Nell Hughes, a conservative grassroots strategist from Tennessee and a former Trump campaign surrogate.
Corker could face multiple challenges from his right. Andy Ogles, who leads the state’s arm of Charles and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, announced a bid on Thursday. Former state Rep. Joe Carr (R), who hit 40 percent in a primary challenge against Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism MORE (R) in 2014, is considering entering the race. So is state Sen. Mark Green, who withdrew his nomination to serve as Army secretary after scrutiny of controversial comments about minority groups.
A crowded field could play to Corker’s advantage. Alexander, for example, won his 2014 primary by 9 points after six challengers divided the rest of the field. But none of Alexander’s challengers had access to the kinds of resources that Bannon and his allies could provide this cycle.
Great America and Bannon have already begun to line up insurgents aiming to take on sitting senators. Both have backed Roy Moore’s bid to unseat Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R) in Alabama’s upcoming Senate primary runoff and have expressed interest in supporting primary challengers running against Flake in Arizona, as well as others.
As Moore continues to poll ahead of Strange, the Great America source said the insurgents are already encouraged by his performance as an indicator of future success, especially since establishment groups have dumped serious money into the race on Strange’s behalf.
But it remains to be seen whether early interest in a primary will turn into hard dollars in Tennessee. It’s possible that Trump could call his allies off if Corker somehow improves his relationship with the unpredictable president. The two met at the White House on Friday for their first face-to-face meeting since Corker’s comments.
Corker is well-respected, both in his party and Washington, for leading the charge on major foreign policy issues. And, aside from his criticism of Trump, his conservative credentials aren’t in question. Both of those issues could make it harder for primary challengers to gain traction.
“What are the real gripes with Corker? I don’t see one issue where they can really point to him to call him a traitor,” the Tennessee political analyst said.
“Certainly there were concerns about his comments with Trump, but there’s no groundswell I’ve picked up yet that would be nearly enough to undermine him unless the [candidate] is well-funded and Corker feeds the narrative more.”
Corker sought on Monday to downplay the idea that Trump would support a challenge, telling reporters that he wouldn’t let the possibility affect him.
“I have no indications whatsoever that the administration would encourage [a primary],” he said.
“I call them like I see them, and I’m not going to change who I am.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are looking on with glee at the possibility of Republicans tearing into Corker. Leading Democratic hopeful James Mackler, an Iraq War veteran and attorney, has already won support from Democrats who see him as their best option for a difficult red-state election.
“The Republican primaries raging across the Senate map will drain resources from the GOP, damage their eventual nominee and exacerbate the fissures within their party,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.
Whoever lands the GOP nomination will be a tough opponent for Democrats, no matter how ugly the Republican primary gets.
“Mackler definitely punches all the right tickets,” the Tennessee analyst said.
“Maybe he can put together a coalition but right now, outside of the cities, there’s hardly any support for Democrats anywhere and the numbers just don’t work unless there are some awful big changes.”