Bob Corker’s re-election came as no surprise.
Tennessee’s junior senator romped to a win over disavowed Democratic embarrassment Mark Clayton after doing virtually no campaigning and running just a bare minimum of ads.
No longer a newbie — he was the lone freshman Republican elected in 2006, making Corker more or less the Senate’s lowest-ranking member — Corker is taking an ever-larger and more public role.
Among his first committee assignments six years ago was a spot on the Banking Committee, once considered an afterthought. But Corker jumped in with both feet and became an important figure during the collapses of 2008. He earned a reputation as a knowledgeable and thoughtful voice on banking policy, and his national profile grew.
In a Congress known for its intransigence, Corker became something of a bridge builder, willing to work with Democrats from time to time.
And now, it looks like Corker’s star will rise even higher.
In the weeks before the election he was profiled a handful of times as the Republicans’ emerging foreign policy leader.
He — often quietly — traveled to international hotspots. One count said he visited 48 countries in two years. Considered a moderate on foreign policy, he’s reached out to hawkish Republicans, neoconservatives and realpolitik advocates, assuring them that if he gets the gig as the GOP’s ranking member on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he’ll listen to everyone.
For a fairly wonkish moderate who has been more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of fiscal policy than the dance-and-thrust of foreign policy, the ascendancy seems out of character.
Unless, of course, he wants public validation of his foreign policy chops because he has even higher aspirations.
Corker makes no bones about his initial discomfort with being a legislator. A businessman who became mayor of Chattanooga, Corker is far more at ease in an executive role where he can direct the action. The horse-trading, logrolling and back-scratching necessary to move the needle in the Senate are not among Corker’s favorite activities.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party is a vacuum, and the sprint to fill it before 2016 will start soon. Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is sure to eye a run at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., as are the dozens of Republican governors — Chris Christie of New Jersey and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, for example. And have no doubt, the Senate is chockablock with big egos who will want to make their case for the presidency.
So Corker needs to stand out. If he adds foreign policy to his résumé, he can check another box on the presidential qualification quiz.
The punditry has already declared that the GOP needs to find a new path before 2016, lest Democrats use demographic advantage to control the White House for years to come. If the party is uneasy with a big change, Corker could represent an incremental one. He’s at ease as a moderate, and despite representing a very conservative state, he hasn’t yet been dragged to the hard right. His name was briefly mentioned as a darkhorse pick for Romney’s running mate, so his name is already known beyond Tennessee.
He’s either pushing or being pushed as his party’s leader on foreign policy — and have no doubt there’s a reason.
We may be witnessing the grooming of a candidate.