NASHVILLE — Saying he simply doesn't have the "passion" to go to Washington, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced Thursday he will not run for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Sen. Bob Corker.
His decision appears to have spurred U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to announce her own intentions for the seat, and, at least for now, she's the GOP primary favorite. Former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., continues to weigh a bid.
With 15 months to go in his second and final term, the Republican billionaire and former Knoxville mayor cited to reporters several reasons for his decision, including devoting time to his remaining agenda and going "from a job where you get to set the agenda to where primarily you have to react to someone else's agenda."
"I'm certainly not saying I'm never going to run for office again, because I love doing this," said the governor. "And if I never get a chance to have a public service job again, I'll be sad about that.
"But," he added, "I just right now don't feel like going to Washington as a United States senator is the right thing for me."
Haslam said he'd received encouragement both from inside and outside Tennessee, acknowledging U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was among those he spoke to in addition to Corker and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the state's senior senator.
Polling by Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University show Haslam remains popular, with support from Republicans and a number of Democrats. Plus, he can raise money and didn't shirk from dipping into his own fortune in his 2010 governor's race, and he has a number of accomplishments he can point to.
But the governor also cited the bitterly divisive atmosphere and warring at the national level, not just between Republicans and Democrats but within the GOP.
"I think the Republican Party is at a defining moment," Haslam said in terms of what the party has traditionally stood for at the national level. That includes low business taxes and free trade, he said.
In Tennessee, voters want the governor to maintain infrastructure, low taxes and jobs, Haslam said. At the federal level it revolves a great deal around immigration and trade, with constant warfare, he noted.
"The result is a Washington that is broken because neither side is willing to say: 'I get it, half of the country feels very differently — what can we work out to make it better?'" the governor said.
Blackburn said she backs President Donald Trump's immigration ban and pledged to "fight with him every step of the way to build that wall."
And in the debate over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Blackburn said, "I stand when the president walks in the room, and yes, I stand when I hear the 'Star-Spangled Banner.'"
Haslam, meanwhile, has at times criticized Trump. During the 2016 presidential race, the governor said Trump should step aside as the GOP nominee after the release of a tape containing the one-time billionaire reality star's comments about women. Haslam called on Trump to let his running mate and Haslam's friend, Mike Pence, become the party's standard bearer.
Haslam said one of his reasons for staying is continuing to wrap up various initiatives in his remaining 15 months.
Since Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, announced his retirement on Sept. 26, the governor has been hammered by the arch-conservative website, Breitbart News, once again helmed by Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The website has noted the upcoming fraud trial involving actions at the Haslam family-owned Pilot Flying J travel centers chain. Neither Haslam, a former top executive, and his older brother, Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam, have been charged and both say they had no knowledge of the overcharging of smaller trucking firms on company accounts.
Asked what Bannon means for Republicans such as himself, especially those in Tennessee who were influenced by the late Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican known for his willingness to discuss issues with those he disagreed with, the governor said, "This isn't just about Bannon but in general governing's hard. It is really easy to sit on the outside and make comments or to throw bombs about how things should work.
"But I mean, it's interesting that some of the people who are the biggest people on the outside saying we need to blow this place up are people who have actually never served in government or did it and didn't last very long," Haslam said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.