NASHVILLE - He's at the height of his power in Washington and been praised by President Donald Trump, but three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee says "it's time" for him to leave office in two years.
The 78-year-old former two-term governor, U.S. Education secretary and one-time University of Tennessee president shook up the state's political universe Monday, announcing he won't seek re-election to the Senate seat he's held since 2003.
That's opened the floodgates of ambition here with term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who leaves office in January, among those now weighing a 2020 race. It's also given Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann something to think about.
Alexander said he made the decision in August during a fishing trip to Canada, but figured he'd sit on it for a while to make sure. Supporters just last week had leaked an Alexander campaign poll showing he had support from nearly two thirds of Republicans surveyed.
Officials react to Alexander's statement
"Sen. Lamar Alexander has faithfully served Tennesseans at the state and federal level for decades. A seventh-generation Tennessean and principled conservative, our state benefited from his thoughtful leadership. I am thankful for Lamar's friendship and wish him the best." - Governor-elect Bill Lee "Lamar Alexander is a Tennessee legend. The foundation of Tennessee's modern success as a state and a people was built upon his wise governance. All Tennesseans owe him a great debt. Lamar, along with Howard Baker and Winfield Dunn, was responsible for the modern rebirth of the Republican Party. But he always put principles over party, people over politics. Lamar always did what was best for Tennessee. As a young legislator, I was honored to work with then-Governor Alexander and was consistently impressed with his diligence and integrity. His mentorship of me and countless others has been invaluable. Though he may not be running for re-election, I have no doubt Lamar will continue to serve our state with distinction for the next two years as Senator and as elder statesmen beyond that. We will need him." - Lt. Gov. Randy McNally "Senator Alexander has been the definition of a statesman throughout his life of service to our nation and state. His work at all levels of government has made the lives of Tennesseans and Americans better. He represented Tennessee as Governor and Senator for more combined years than anyone else in our state's history, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. His leadership will be missed, and we wish him and Honey our best." - Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden "It is almost impossible to measure the impact of Lamar Alexander's commitment to Tennessee. His time as governor paved the way for the economic position we enjoy today as a leading state for business, and his educational reforms were ahead of his time. As a senator, he has distinguished himself as a national leader, while always reminding everyone that our founders designed our government for most of the power to be delegated to the states. No one has served our state longer as a governor and senator, and few, if any, have served it better than Lamar." - Gov. Bill Haslam
"I was thinking about what to do and realized I'd served two terms as governor, three as senator, and nobody else had done that" in Tennessee history, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said in an interview after his announcement.
"And I thought, well, people had been very generous with me and that's enough even though I feel I'm doing my job better than I ever have," Alexander said. "I thought it was time for somebody else to have a turn. I guess everything has a season and has to come to an end. Plus, I like the idea of leaving when I'm batting .400 instead of some other way."
He said he planned to announce his decision several weeks ago but held off after the death of former President George H.W. Bush, who had appointed Alexander as education secretary.
It comes after a 2018 election cycle in which Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga chose not to seek re-election, spurring an epic battle between Republican Marsha Blackburn and former governor and Democrat Phil Bredesen, which Blackburn won.
Calling Alexander "one of the finest statesmen our state has ever seen," Corker said in a statement that "Lamar will leave behind a remarkable legacy. I know he will press through the next two years with great vigor, and I look forward to all he will accomplish on behalf of Tennesseans as he completes his service in Washington."
Alexander, a Maryville, Tennessee native, served as governor from 1978 to 1987. He is the only Tennessean ever popularly elected both governor and senator. His 2008 general election vote total of 1,579,477 is the largest ever received by a statewide candidate.
He is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee,
This year, he authored and in October passed a bill addressing the nation's opioid epidemic. Trump, who has famously feuded with Corker, happily signed the legislation into law, calling it "the single largest bill to combat a drug crisis in the history of our country."
In 2016, Alexander wrote the "21st Century Cures Act," which is designed to help accelerate medical product development and bring new innovations and advances faster and more efficiently to patients who need them. It provided $6.3 billion in funding, mostly for the National Institutes of Health.
And in 2015 he authored the "Every Student Succeeds Act," intended to fix the "No Child Left Behind" law. President Barack Obama called the new law "a Christmas miracle," and The Wall Street Journal called it the "largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century."
Alexander cites all three as some of his major Senate accomplishments.
As chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee, Alexander provided four years of record funding for national laboratories, supercomputing and waterways, including restarting work on replacing the Chickamauga Lock. Helping Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been a labor of love for the senator, who's been helped by Fleischmann, an appropriator in the House.
"The great state of Tennessee has been generous to the U.S. Senate over the years," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "A number of Tennessee senators from both parties have enriched this institution through especially distinguished service and built reputations as national leaders.
"And," McConnell added, "no one embodies this legacy better than Lamar. While I'm sure he will accomplish even more over the next two years, Lamar is already one of the most consequential senators on domestic policy in memory."
As Tennessee governor, Alexander pushed education reform, eventually passing his "Better Schools" program that sought to standardize basic education in the state's public schools and was an early harbinger of public education reform efforts across the country. A major and controversial part of his plan was the "Master Teachers" or the "Career Ladder" program that called for providing the state's top teachers with merit pay.
He also points to helping usher in Tennessee's move into auto manufacturing, landing a Nissan plant for Smyrna in the early 1980s and later GM's Saturn plant in Spring Hill.
Alexander, an attorney, cut his political teeth back in 1966, helping get Republican Howard Baker Jr. elected to the Senate, the first Republican to win the office. After working as an aide in the Nixon White House, he was back in Tennessee, helping engineer Republican Winfield Dunn's 1970 victory in the governor's race.
Four years later, Alexander was off and running for governor himself. He lost in the post-Watergate scandal landslide. But he came back in 1978 and won the governor's mansion.
Like his mentor Baker, Alexander has fit in the mold of Tennessee Republicans' moderate-to-conservative wing, seeking to work across the aisle to get things done.
Still, many Democrats in the 1980s and early 1990s loathed him. These days, the heat Alexander gets mostly comes from the GOP's right wing. In 2014, then-state Rep. Joe Carr challenged Alexander in the GOP primary. Alexander won with 50 percent but Carr, who had little money, still grabbed 40 percent of the vote.
Alexander likely would have been challenged in the 2020 GOP primary, and with an uncertain 2020 political environment ambitious Democrats might have challenged him, as well.
"I've never based a decision about running for election on whether I could win or not," Alexander said of deciding not to run in 2020. "If I had, I'd never have been elected to anything."
He said he called the president on Sunday to tell him, but "before I could tell him anything, he said, 'Marsha [Blackburn], that worked out fine. Now let's talk about you serving another 20 years.'"
After explaining to Trump he was calling to tell him he wasn't seeking re-election, the president asked, "Why would you do that?" Alexander said. After further explanation, Trump said "he understood."
The Senate has become increasingly polarized.
"I wouldn't take anything for granted, but I think I would have been in pretty good shape," Alexander said.
Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
Lamar Alexander through the years
July 3, 1940: Alexander born in Maryville, Tennessee, to an elementary school principal and a preschool teacher. 1960s: Attends Vanderbilt University, writes 1961 editorials for student newspaper advocating integration of undergraduate school. Graduates New York University Law School in 1965. 1965-1966: Messenger and law clerk for Honorable John Minor Wisdom, 8th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. 1966: Works for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Howard Baker's successful campaign. Becomes Baker's legislative assistant (1967-1968). 1969: Marries Leslee "Honey" Buhler. The couple have 4 children and 9 grandchildren. 1969-1970: Staff assistant to President Richard Nixon. Returns home to manage Republican gubernatorial candidate Winfield Dunn's successful 1970 campaign. 1974: Republican nominee for governor, loses to Democrat Ray Blanton. 1978: Runs for governor, walks 1,022 miles in stages across Tennessee, spending nights along the way with 73 families. Wins, sworn into office by Democratic legislative leaders three days early on Jan. 17, 1979, replacing the scandal-plagued Blanton. 1982: Lures Nissan to locate manufacturing plant to Smyrna. Later lands General Motors' Saturn plant to Spring Hill. 1983/1984: Persuades Democratic lawmakers to approve his pioneering Career Ladder program with merit pay for teachers. 1988-1991: President, University of Tennessee. 1991-1993: U.S. Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush. 1995-1996: Runs unsuccessfully for Republican presidential nomination. 1999-2000: Runs unsuccessfully for Republican presidential nomination. 2002: Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002 2008 and 2014: Wins Senate re-election. 2018: Current chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee and chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Sources: Alexander U.S. Senate website; news accounts