Why Bob Corker’s retirement could shake up the Senate

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) announced Tuesday that he will not run for another term in 2018, setting up an open contest for his seat in next year’s midterms.

The announcement is big news. Corker chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is known as an independent, pragmatic, and policy-minded voice in the Senate GOP. So his exit will have ramifications in the chamber — for one, he won’t have to worry about reelection as he casts his votes over the next 15 months.

His decision is also the retirement of a leading Republican who’s criticized President Donald Trump — Corker said in August that Trump hadn’t demonstrated “the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” (Trump responded with a sharp tweet declaring that Tennessee was “not happy” with Corker.)

But Corker’s choice could also have big implications for the 2018 midterms, because it makes a mind-bogglingly awful Senate map for Democrats … slightly less mind-bogglingly awful.

Democrats have very few plausible pickup opportunities in the Senate in 2018. Of the 33 seats that will be on the ballot, 25 of them are already held by Democrats — which include several Democrats representing very red states who will have tough reelection fights.

That leaves just eight Republican-held seats on the ballot for Democrats to target. The problem is that most of those Republicans also represent very red states and appear safe. Democrats hope to give tough challenges to Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) — and some hold the faint hope that a challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) could catch on — but their opportunities seemed to end there.

Corker’s retirement, however, gives Democrats an opportunity to pick up an open seat — something that has historically been much easier than knocking off an opposite-party incumbent. (One Democratic candidate already running is James Mackler, an attorney and Iraq War veteran.)

Now, it’s far from likely that Democrats will actually win this race — Trump won Tennessee by 26 points, so whoever gets the Republican nomination will start off as a major favorite. (Rep. Marsha Blackburn is one possible candidate.)

With the current tensions within the GOP, though, it does seem at least conceivable that the primary could get messy, and that we could see a surprising outcome. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon had already been trying to recruit a populist primary challenger to Corker, and he will likely push ahead in this effort as he seeks to reshape the congressional GOP in his preferred image.

But no matter who emerges from that primary, a neophyte Republican senator without two terms of experience will likely feel less empowered to work pragmatically with Democrats, or to criticize President Trump.

For the time being, Corker thinks he may still have work left to do — and he seems to want to be able to focus on it rather than on reelection.

“I also believe the most important public service I have to offer our country could well occur over the next 15 months,” he wrote in his statement announcing his decision. “And I want to be able to do that as thoughtfully and independently as I did the first 10 years and nine months of my Senate career.”

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