NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republicans' 2018 political dominoes began falling into place Thursday after Gov. Bill Haslam announced he will not run to replace fellow Republican, friend and ally U.S. Sen. Bob Corker.
Before day's end, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., announced her statewide bid in a video, describing herself as a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative" and adding she's "politically incorrect and proud of it."
Describing the Senate as "totally dysfunctional" and castigating Senate Republicans among other things for their failure to repeal Obamacare, the Brentwood resident also plugged her conservative views on gun rights, opposition to abortion rights and spending.
"I know the left calls me a wingnut or a knuckle-dragging conservative," she said. "And you know what? I say that's all right. Bring it on."
Her announcement brought some clarity to the GOP primary. Although former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Republican West Tennessee farmer, continues to weigh the race, according to an adviser, two other potential candidates quickly shifted focus.
State Sen. Mark Green announced he would run for Blackburn's Middle Tennessee 7th Congressional District seat.
And former state Rep. Joe Carr, who had been gearing up for a bid, announced he would use the half-million dollars he's raised for his Stand Firm America "super PAC" to support Blackburn.
That leaves Andy Ogles, the former executive director of the Tennessee chapter of the billionaire Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity. Ogles, the only one to announce his candidacy prior to Corker's announcement he would forego a contest, did not respond to emails.
Earlier in the day, a term-limited Haslam said despite efforts by Corker, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others, he wasn't interested and instead wanted to devote his last 15 months to his administration.
"While I have loved being a mayor and a governor, I don't feel the same call to run for Senate at this point," said Haslam, who noted he enjoys being a chief executive.
With an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes, and high voter approval in polling from both Republicans and Democrats, the governor, in the philosophical center of his party, said he realized he would have a fight in the GOP primary.
But he said that wasn't the major factor in his decision. He said the issue crystallized in his mind when his wife, Crissy, asked if he would take the Senate seat "'if somebody hit you on the head with a magic wand and said, "You're a United States senator?"'"
"My response was, 'I still wouldn't be excited about the job at this point,'" Haslam said.
Carr, who ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in 2014 and had weighed a similar bid against Corker before his announcement, said he was happy to step aside for Blackburn and told her so Wednesday night in a phone call.
"If she wants my help she'll have it," Carr said.
Democratic Nashville millionaire Bill Freeman, a businessman who spent $4.5 million in an unsuccessful 2015 mayoral race, announced prior to Haslam's move that he would not seek the party's nomination.
The lone formally announced Democratic candidate, James Mackler, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who is seriously mulling getting into the race, sharply criticized Blackburn.
"Congresswoman Blackburn voted for the House's healthcare bill that would have had devastating effects for people with pre-existing conditions and sent premiums for everyone else sky-rocketing," the Mackler campaign said. "While Tennesseans saw one rural hospital close after another, Congresswoman Blackburn voted to cut Medicaid."
Berke tweeted of Blackburn: "Instead of someone who proudly talks about being outside the mainstream TN really needs a US Senator who is focused on progress for the middle class — jobs, wages, healthcare and education."
Blackburn has long been admired by many staunch Tennessee conservatives. She appeared with President Donald Trump when he was running during the 2016 GOP presidential primary and later served on a post-election advisory panel, as well as acting as an occasional surrogate on television news and opinion shows.
Trump's former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had targeted Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, whose pragmatism and occasional dealings with Democrats had evidently irked Bannon.
And for the past week, the Bannon-run website Breitbart News has been slamming Haslam.
Bannon, The Washington Examiner has reported, is likely to favor Blackburn as is the influential Club Growth and the Koch brothers.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.