NASHVILLE — Amid renewed speculation that he won't seek re-election next year, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, repeated Monday what he's been saying for months.
He's yet to make up his mind, the senator said in a statement — the same stance he's taken since at least December.
"[I]t is a tremendous privilege to serve Tennesseans in the Senate and much work lies ahead, including passing tax reform, strengthening our national security and getting spending under control," the former Chattanooga mayor said. "But I think everyone in the Volunteer State knows, as they did in 2012, that running for re-election has never been an automatic for me."
Corker added: "While we are in a strong position, I am still contemplating the future and will make a decision at the appropriate time."
On Monday, CNN and Politico raised the possibility Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, might not run for a third term.
And if he does, it could prove a donnybrook in the GOP primary. Citing anonymous sources, Politico also reported Sunday that former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who has returned to helm the arch-conservative website Breitbart News after leaving the White House, has set his political sights on Corker and two other "establishment" Republicans.
According to Politico, Bannon is seeking to find GOP primary challengers and coordinating with conservative "mega-donor" Robert Mercer, who is reportedly prepared to dump millions of dollars into attacks on the incumbents.
As for Corker not yet declaring his bid for a third term, one Republican close to the senator noted that Corker went through the same evaluation process before his 2012 election. But Corker did the same after a four-year stint as Chattanooga mayor and ultimately chose not to seek re-election.
Still, a Tennessee-based Republican political operative noted, by not making a public decision less than a year before the August 2018 GOP primary, Corker is only serving to invite speculation. At the same time, however, the senator could be trying to keep potential serious GOP challengers on edge.
In a state where President Donald Trump easily won the Tennessee GOP presidential primary in 2016, Corker has had a complex relation with the president. He has alternately praised and criticized Trump.
During the campaign, the senator was considered by Trump as a running mate — Corker withdrew early on from consideration. Trump also considered Corker as his secretary of state.
But Corker drew Trump's ire last month after he sharply criticized Trump's comments about the death of a woman after a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Va., drove into a group of people demonstrating against a white nationalist march.
Trump, Corker said, "has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful." And he declared Trump "has not demonstrated he understands the character of this nation."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later called Corker's comments "ridiculous."
And the president himself took a Twitter crack at Corker, calling the senator's statement "strange considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in '18. Tennessee not happy!"
Corker, meanwhile, insists both he and Trump are simply straightforward in their expressions and that he maintains good relations with the president and his administration.
In Tennessee, hard-right Republicans have long been seeking a candidate to run against Corker this election cycle.
Former state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who ran in GOP primaries and lost to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in 2014, and against U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., in 2016, is weighing a bid.
He is expected to announce a decision Thursday at a fundraiser for his recently created federal PAC.
Meanwhile, some here in Tennessee believe Bannon could seek to entice former state Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, to challenge Corker.
Green had been running for governor until Trump nominated him to become U.S. Army secretary. Green withdrew after national blowups over his comments about gays and Muslims.
After giving up on his nomination, Green praised Corker for having defended him before other GOP senators, and he has since embarked on a new venture aimed at encouraging more social and religious conservatives to run for public office. But Green is said to have called Corker after the senator leveled his criticisms of Trump before the Rotary Club of Chattanooga last month.
From the outside looking in, everything seems on go for the senator to run. Corker has some $7.5 million in his campaign kitty. A multimillionaire, he showed no hesitation in 2006 to pull out his wallet in his fierce contest with Democrat Harold Ford Jr. for the then-open Senate seat.
And Tennessee Democrats are skeptical about talk that Corker won't run. They pointed to the senator's revamped campaign website.
It says: "We can build on our conservative successes in Washington D.C. But we need you to make it happen." And it makes a pitch to "JOIN TEAM CORKER" and also seeks contributions.
Corker does have one announced opponent. It's a Democrat, James Mackler, an Iraq war veteran and attorney from Nashville.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter at AndySher1.
This story was updated Sept. 11 at 11:40 p.m. with more information.