NASHVILLE - Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker on Sunday defended his praise of Democrat Phil Bredesen but reiterated he still plans to support expected GOP nominee U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in the race to succeed him.
A former Chattanooga mayor and one-time state finance commissioner, Corker has been catching heat for days from top Republicans over his favorable remarks about Bredesen, a former governor and Nashville mayor.
On Sunday, Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made back-to-back appearances on CNN's "State of the Union" and ABC's "This Week."
"He is my friend," Corker said regarding Bredesen to CNN's Dana Bash. "I'm not going to campaign against him, but I'm supporting our nominee."
Asked why Blackburn would be better than Bredesen, Corker said, "I think most people in our state, it is a red state, will focus on the first vote she makes, and that's the vote to elect the majority leader. And at the end of the day, I think that's going to be a big factor in the race."
As Bash pointed out, that didn't exactly sound like a "ringing endorsement" of Blackburn's candidacy, Corker replied, "I'm supporting the nominee. I've worked with the nominee for some time, and I don't know what else to say."
Speaking later with ABC's George Stephanopoulis, Corker said "Yes, I mean it's been clear. I sent the maximum check [to Blackburn] as soon as it was determined that she was our nominee."
"What I said, I'm supporting the nominee," Corker added. "Everyone knows that. I sent the maximum check and plan to vote for them."
Corker never mentioned Blackburn by name during either appearance.
In both appearances, Corker took a swipe at the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee he accused of leaking to The Washington Post concerns raised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to Corker on the Senate floor about the senator's favorable remarks about Bredesen. The remarks came at a Wednesday breakfast discussion hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Corker described Bredesen at the event as "a very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person. And look, I'm not going to campaign against someone who I've been a friend with and worked with, so that's the way it's gonna be."
As a state finance commissioner in Republican Gov. Don Sundquist's administration, Corker worked with then-Nashville Mayor Bredesen to bring the NFL Houston Oilers franchise to Nashville, despite the unhappiness of Sundquist.
After Bredesen was elected governor, the Democrat worked with then-Chattanooga Mayor Corker and others to ready the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant in Hamilton as an acceptable industrial mega-site. Then the two successfully worked together again to recruit Volkswagen to the site.
The Washington Post reported that Blackburn saw Corker's remarks about Bredesen as a "personal slight."
McConnell reportedly later told Corker the comments weren't helpful as the GOP seeks to retain control of the Senate in this year's mid-term elections. The seat now held by Corker could wind up being pivotal.
The Post also reported McConnell pointedly told the Chattanooga senator that Republicans were only in the situation they now find themselves in after Corker decided not to seek a third term.
President Donald Trump later tweeted his full-throated support for Blackburn and pledged to come to Tennessee to campaign on her behalf.
Corker and Trump have had a sometimes-tumultuous relationship, getting along at times and clashing at others.
At the Christian Science Monitor breakfast last week, Corker was also asked about Trump.
"Look, any Republican senator who hasn't been conflicted over this presidency is either comatose or is pretty useless in their blindness, OK? And we've got some of both, of course, and not many.
"But look, we have a president who will sign legislation that we pass on the Republican side," Corker said. "And then we have chaotic things that occur on a daily basis, and my guess is as I had fun with him talking about [issues] - I mean, at 10 o'clock you might feel one way, at noon you might feel another way, 2 o'clock you might feel another way. So, I'll just leave it like that."
Nonetheless, Corker added, "I have a very warm relationship with the president. He's very accessible. More accessible than any president probably in the history of the world."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.