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Corker warms to Trump and flirts with reelection bid

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Capitol Hill last week.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Capitol Hill last week. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It was just a few months ago that Bob Corker, soon after announcing his retirement from the Senate, began to blast President Trump, calling him a childlike president who was putting the United States “on the path to World War III.”

Trump fired back, tweeting that the Tennessee Republican had “begged” for his endorsement and “couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”

But in recent days the two men have reconnected, warming their long-chilly and acrimonious relationship as Corker has moved closer to shelving his retirement plans and launching a late reelection bid.

Corker has had several conversations with the president in which the possibility of a 2018 campaign has been broached, according to five Republicans who were not authorized to comment on the discussions.

Corker also has been cultivating his bonds with the Trump family and top White House staffers, they added — and Monday he met with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, for coffee.

There was more activity Tuesday as Corker met with Vice President Pence at the Capitol — although aides insisted the meeting was unrelated to politics — and Republican colleagues said he was leaning toward jump-starting a campaign.

“You’d see the Bob Corker who almost completely supports the president’s agenda, who has a common relationship with the president, but who from time to time will disagree with the president,” Tom Ingram, a political confidant of the senator, said when asked to characterize a possible Corker campaign.

Explaining the easing of past differences with Trump, Ingram shrugged. Corker “was compelled to deal with the White House [after his retirement announcement], and they discovered, ‘Hey, let’s get over it,’ ” he said.

Ingram and other Corker advisers said he will make a final decision in the coming weeks, but they hesitated to offer a firm timeline. The filing deadline for Tennessee candidates is April 5.

The president and others have listened to the senator’s concerns about the competitive Tennessee race. But Trump has not made a decision on whether he would give his blessing to a comeback, a White House official said.

A Corker reentry into the race could be complicated for Trump. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is the front-runner for the nomination and a strong ally of the president. Her campaign had stinging words for the prospect of a Corker bid.

“Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig,” Blackburn campaign spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “She’s the best fundraiser in the country and is beating Phil Bredesen in several polls. We aren’t worried about these ego-driven, tired old men.”

Still, Corker’s thaw with Trump represents a remarkable turnaround for a lawmaker who had emerged as a razor-sharp critic inside a party that has largely been reticent to offer more than occasional reprimands of the president.

While many elected Republicans privately grouse about Trump, it has often only been those who are safely ensconced in political winter or are retiring — such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and, until this week, Corker — who have spoken up. Those who will face voters this year mostly remain wary of alienating the president’s supporters, who they are counting on to stave off a potential Democratic wave.

Bob Corker, Republican senator from Tennessee, announces his retirement

Corker’s moves signal that he is closer than ever to rejoining the GOP’s rank and file, where being a Trump ally is accepted these days as necessary, especially in a red state — a far cry from the drama-filled days in October when Corker called the White House an “adult day care” and a “reality show.”

Corker’s reconsideration sparked tensions in Tennessee and Washington on Tuesday over whether the senator’s flirtation with a return is an attention-seeking gambit by an indecisive politician or an effort by a veteran Republican to help his party hold on to the seat and protect its slim Senate majority.

Democrats nationally are hoping to expand their Senate map in the South after Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’s upset Senate victory in a December special election. The likely Democratic Senate nominee in Tennessee, former governor Bredesen, is a proven winner statewide, and his chances have been rated as competitive by nonpartisan election analysts.

Corker’s advisers argue that Blackburn’s hard-line style puts the Senate seat at risk and say Corker’s more moderate political persona could be a better fit in a traditional Republican state in a tumultuous election year. Politico reported Monday that an internal GOP poll last month showed Bredesen beating Blackburn in a hypothetical election — a poll that has been widely circulated by Corker’s allies.

Blackburn raised more than $2 million in the final quarter of last year, and she had more than $4.5 million on hand last month. Her primary rival, former congressman Stephen Lee Fincher, raised about $1.5 million in the most recent quarter.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment Tuesday, underscoring the sensitivities about Corker’s ruminations and the ongoing talks with Trump.

Another factor prompting Corker to rethink retirement, Republicans said, is his high-profile perch. If he ran and won, he would continue to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would probably be in line to take over the powerful Senate Banking Committee in the coming years.

Corker is not the only Republican lawmaker giving indications of a forthcoming Senate campaign — part of a rush of activity as the midterm elections loom and GOP nervousness continues to grow.

Republicans are increasingly confident that Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a Trump ally, will reverse course and run for the Senate, Republicans said, and one senior GOP official said Cramer has been telling people this week that he will run.

GOP, Trump suffer recruiting setback as Cramer will not run for Senate

“We’re just respectfully reconsidering right now. I’ll have a decision by the end of the weekend,” Cramer said Tuesday evening. The congressman cited the sweeping GOP tax bill that was passed recently as a factor in his thinking about the Senate run, saying the “enthusiasm for that has grown in the last couple of weeks.”

Former North Dakota Republican Party chairman Gary Emineth announced Tuesday that he was ending his Senate campaign, predicting that Cramer would run. Republican state Sen. Tom Campbell is still in the contest. The race against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) is one of the GOP’s biggest pickup opportunities. North Dakota is one of 10 states Democrats are defending that the president won in 2016.

Meanwhile, the exact status of the Trump-Corker relationship remains a subject of debate. Corker’s orbit describes it as improved to the point of being friendly, with invitations to ride on Air Force One and casual phone calls. And some Republicans close to the president say Trump is happy to have Corker court him and could eventually be persuaded to support his reelection, should the senator choose to run for a third term.

But numerous Republicans close to Trump were less rosy. They said Trump may hear out Corker but warned that he would never formally throw his support behind him — even if Republicans worry that the Tennessee seat is in jeopardy — because he does not forgive Corker for calling him a child.

More likely, they said, was that Trump would welcome Corker’s embrace but stay out of the Republican primary race. Or, he could decide to endorse Blackburn instead.

Corker stayed mum Tuesday.

“I don’t want to talk about anything,” he told reporters.

Paul Kane contributed to this report

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