Only months after ranking high on the Tennessee Tea Party’s list of public enemies, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has managed to schmooze and maneuver his way into the hearts of his onetime nemeses and appears poised to skate to re-election in 2012.
Tea Party leaders suddenly are singing Corker’s praises, saying they never really meant to come across as overly critical even as they angrily protested outside his office and accosted the senator at his town hall meetings last summer.
They say they’ve been swung around by Corker’s outrage over federal spending and the national debt, an outspokenness that has increased in volume as his re-election date has approached.
“Bob’s not a dope. He’s not a dumb guy,” said Memphis Tea Party leader Mark Skoda. “He’s a fella who recognizes that if he wants to remain a senator and he wants to work for the state of Tennessee, he needs to evidence his conservative bona fides. I think he’s doing that more recently.”
In public appearances, the freshman senator has transformed into a dark prophet of debt doom, constantly flacking what has become his signature legislation to put a cap on federal spending.
“Most folks who embrace the Tea Party movement are concerned about spending,” Corker said in a recent TV interview, “and I can’t imagine a greater champion in the United States Senate on spending than Bob Corker. OK?”
Given the haplessness of Tennessee Democrats, it always has been a challenge from the right wing that worries Corker the most. Despite an approval rating for the senator that dropped as low as 42 percent in one poll, no Democrat is preparing to run against Corker.
A wealthy real estate developer, Corker has raised nearly $3 million for his campaign, at last report, and he could self-finance his re-election in the unlikely event that his contributions run short.
One dreamy Democratic activist has mounted a “Draft Phil Bredesen” campaign on Facebook. The aforementioned poll, conducted last February by Public Policy Polling, showed Bredesen beating Corker in a hypothetical contest. But the former governor already has said he isn’t likely to run for any public office again and, besides, he’s one of Corker’s closest friends.
State Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester called Corker “a weak incumbent” and insists some Democrat will challenge his re-election. He said the party is talking to prospective candidates and “we’re not particularly worried” that no one has stepped up yet. But with time expiring to raise enough money to mount a competitive campaign, other party leaders acknowledge privately it’s almost certain that no one of any stature will emerge.
Corker is so confident he won’t face a credible Democratic opponent that two weeks ago he voted for Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial plan to transform Medicare. That’s a loyalty test for conservatives but highly unpopular with the rest of the electorate, according to polls.
“He’s branded with the Ryan Plan, but right now I would say that’s not enough [to cause Corker to lose an election] in Tennessee,” said Bob Tuke, the Democrat who lost to Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2008. “To be just blunt about, Bob Corker would be tough to beat. He has strong backing within his own party. He is independently wealthy. He happens to be a good guy. He’s a personal friend of mine. Don’t you hate it when that happens?”
The senator angered the Tea Party by voting for the 2008 bank bailout and by reaching across the aisle to work with Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd on financial regulatory reform. Corker wound up voting against
the latter bill but insists he made it better by negotiating with the Democrats.
At a town hall meeting in Nashville last year, Tea Party activist Karen Boswell used graphic terms to warn Corker against making deals with Democrats.
“While you may raise your hand across the aisle,” she said, “those on the other side may shake your hand; they may smack your hand; they may ignore it. But we, the people at the ballot box, will amputate it if you do that.”
Conservative talk radio host Steve Gill said Corker was clearly concerned.
“We talked about it,” Gill said. “Why does the Tea Party have such a burr under their saddle? When you look at most of the ratings Corker gets from tax groups and conservative groups, he’s one of the better ones in terms of voting record. So it’s not voting record. You can point to this vote or that vote and say I disagree with that. But you’ve still got a guy who’s there 95 percent of the time. I talked with him and I said, ‘Look, I wish I had an answer for you.’ ”
Gill said he told Corker he needed to give the Tea Party the sense that he was a leader on their issues in Washington.
Corker remains a favorite target of national conservative bloggers. Redstate’s Erick Erickson wrote last month: “Surely conservatives can find somebody decent to beat the heck out of Bob Corker in a primary in Tennessee. Corker is terrible. He pushes the Senate GOP left and toward capitulation. He is contemptuous of conservatives. He’s bad news.”
But the senator has changed the opinions of many conservative activists in his home state. He has barnstormed the state to promote his CAP Act, which sets an across-the-board and binding cap on all federal spending. He calls it a “fiscal straitjacket” and “really tough medicine” that would slash spending by $7.5 trillion over 10 years.
Corker speaks with urgency about the debt issue. “I don’t think I’ve had this degree of adrenaline in a good while here,” he said in a recent appearance on Skoda’s Memphis radio show. This summer’s vote in Congress on raising the debt ceiling has become for Corker “a seminal moment in our country’s history.”
“It’s the most important period of time in my opinion for us to actually change the direction of our country spending-wise,” he told the show’s Tea Party listeners. “With this debt ceiling vote, we really have the opportunity to downwardly trend trillions of dollars over the next 10 years. And you know well and your listeners know well, we have to do this.”
Skoda is so impressed he said he’s personally discouraged at least two potential Tea Party candidates from running against Corker.
“A couple of folks called me who were interested in looking at running against Corker. I said, ‘Look, unless the guy is an apostate and turned into a liberal, why would you waste your money, your time and your energy to try to contend against this guy?’
“He’s largely conservative,” Skoda said. “I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing when he voted for the bailouts. I disagreed with him and disagreed with him vehemently. And we told him so. But it was more holding our conservative accountable rather than saying throw the bum out.”