For decades, pro-business moderate Republicans have climbed the path from the mountains of Tennessee to the halls of the U.S. Senate.
As Bill Haslam considers following in the footsteps of Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, it is clear the political landscape that vaulted those men into power has changed substantially.
Bill Haslam has criticized Trump in the past
video by Michael Schwab/Tennessean
Haslam, a Knoxville billionaire, would be the front-runner if he decides to get in the race. But the move also would create a politically unprecedented scenario for Tennessee: a sitting Republican governor and consistent critic of a GOP president running in a state that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.
“I think the primary is going to be a free-for-all, even if the governor gets in. He’s going to get challenged from his right,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, where she tracks U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races.
Haslam said Trump should drop out of race
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker announced this week he would not seek re-election in 2018. Corker has his own mercurial relationship with the president, supporting his policy efforts during the campaign but more recently questioning his competency to lead.
Haslam was equally direct in his criticism during the presidential campaign.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Haslam criticized then-candidate Trump on a variety of topics, including the New York billionaire’s derogatory remarks toward Muslims as well as his attacks on a federal judge and the Republican governor of New Mexico.
Bill Haslam is considering Bob Corker’s Senate seat
video by Michael Schwab/Tennessean
When Trump’s vulgar comments about women emerged just one month before the election, Haslam called for the candidate to step aside and let his running mate, Mike Pence, run in his place. Further, Haslam said he would not vote for Trump in the November election — a promise he kept.
“I want to emphasize that character in our leaders does matter. None of us in elected office are perfect, but the decisions that are made in the Oval Office have too many consequences to ignore the behavior we have seen,” Haslam said when calling on Trump to drop out of the race.
Such pointed scrutiny will fuel Republican primary opponents clamoring to become the Trump-aligned, “drain the swamp” contender in the race. But Duffy said she believes Haslam’s popularity will help him against those opponents.
That popularity and a heavy financial advantage for Haslam may not overcome a Trump-backed candidate consistently jabbing the governor from the right and questioning his loyalty of a president who is still popular in Tennessee.
Haslam would face attacks from multiple fronts
On Friday, the conservative activist organization Club for Growth blasted Haslam, setting the stage for constant attacks if the governor enters the race.
“Haslam is the very definition of an establishment candidate who will fall in line with (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell. Any governor that supports Medicaid expansion is not going to be a candidate that will be well received in a GOP primary,” said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for the organization.
Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Kent Syler said the governor understands some in the Republican Party will use his lack of support for Trump against him.
“The Republican Party right now is largely about Donald Trump,” Syler said.
But Syler said there is no runoff election in the Tennessee primary system, so more tea party candidates will divide the far-right vote, letting the governor focus on the 25 to 35 percent of voters he needs to win a crowded primary.
A main complication Haslam needs to consider in deciding whether to enter the race are the ever-changing dynamics within the Trump administration.
“It’s a volatile situation,” Syler said.
Although she has not announced her candidacy, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn would be a favorite to receive any Trump endorsement if she entered the race. The 15-year congressional veteran was an early and vocal supporter of Trump and has a political track record that’s as far to the right politically as anyone in Congress.
Duffy questions whether Blackburn even gets in the race if Haslam enters.
“In a field absent Haslam, Blackburn’s a front-runner. If he does run, she’s not,” Duffy said.
“So it’s a very different equation for her. Is it worth giving up the seat she holds now for something that is far from a sure thing?”
Ex-Trump adviser Bannon also likely to influence race
Nationally, the same forces that swept Trump into office could push more moderate Republicans out of several U.S. Senate seats. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon and other well-known Trump surrogates are already out on the campaign trail, at times fighting Trump to push for candidates more aligned with the nationalist view that helped elect Trump.
Despite Trump endorsing incumbent Luther Strange in a late September special election for an open U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, controversial ex-judge Roy Moore received Bannon’s support and defeated Strange.
Sen. Bob Corker announces his future plans
The Alabama race shows a Trump endorsement may not matter if Bannon or others are successful in establishing a Tennessee candidate who is the right person to help Trump in the Senate.
Bannon, who threatened a primary challenge for Corker weeks before he announced his retirement, is more likely than Trump to play a bigger role in the Senate race, Duffy said.
“I think Trump will be very cautious of supporting anybody going forward,” said Michael Lotfi, a Tennessee Republican consultant.
Haslam downplays Trump critiques, notes Pence relationship
On Thursday, Haslam downplayed any impact his Trump critiques may have on a potential future campaign, noting he still hasn’t decide to actually enter the race. But Haslam did raise another factor that could mitigate any anti-Trump forces: his close relationship with Pence.
“Vice President Pence is a really good friend of mine,” Haslam said, adding, “I’m close to several people in the administration.”
Longtime Haslam confidant Tom Ingram said Tennessee voters don’t want a Bannon to influence their elections or a Roy Moore-like candidate to represent them in the Senate.
“I think Tennesseans ought to elect their own senator and tell everybody else to stay the hell out of Tennessee. We’ve done a good job of it for years, and I think we can do a good job of it again,” Ingram said Thursday.
Tea party-aligned conservative activist Rick Williams said GOP primary voters will not support Haslam.
“You decide to not be for him in the general election when his opponent was Hillary Clinton and now you want the Republican voters to give you the nomination for U.S. Senate … and be another thorn in (Trump’s) side like (Mitch) McConnell and (John) McCain?” Williams said. “I don’t think so.”
Everything from the governor’s recently approved gas tax hike to his desire to remove Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust from the statehouse and his veto of a bill making the Holy Bible the official state book would be fodder for his opponents.
“I think he will lose in a Republican primary,” said Williams, who voted for Haslam in 2010 and 2014. “He’s out of touch with Republicans in Tennessee. He might be in touch with the Democrats and he might be in touch fairly well with some of the middle. The problem is he’s running in a Republican primary and Republicans have long memories.”
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