NASHVILLE — U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is publicly moving closer to reconsidering his decision to retire, with a spokeswoman saying Tuesday afternoon the senator is "listening closely" to Tennesseans who have told him they're concerned former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen could win the seat.
"In recent days, people across Tennessee have reached out to Senator Corker with concerns about the outcome of this election because they believe it could determine control of the Senate and the future of our agenda," Corker spokeswoman Micah Johnson said in a late Tuesday afternoon email to the Times Free Press.
Johnson added that Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, "has been encouraged to reconsider his decision and is listening closely."
The comments cap a whirlwind day for the contest, with GOP primary frontrunner Marsha Blackburn's spokeswoman earlier in the day blasting critics responding to a Tennessee business group's poll indicating Bredesen holds a narrow lead over the Brentwood congresswoman, a favorite of Tennesseans in the GOP's hard right.
"Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can't win a general election is just a plain sexist pig," said Andrea Bozek, spokeswoman for Blackburn's Senate campaign.
Calling Blackburn the "best fundraiser in the country," Bozek said the congresswoman is beating former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in several polls.
"We aren't worried about these ego-driven, tired old men," Bozek said. "Marsha has spent her whole life fighting people who told her she wasn't good enough, and she will do it again."
If Corker does enter the contest, it could trigger a GOP civil war among traditional Republicans and hardliners.
The poll, conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, indicates wide support for President Trump, with whom Corker publicly quarreled last summer and fall in a Twitter war of words.
Bredesen, according to the Jan. 1-Feb. 1 poll, edged out Blackburn, 47-45 percent. The survey has a margin of error of slightly over plus or minus 4 percent, meaning the contest could be a dead heat or Blackburn could actually be slightly ahead.
Blackburn jumped into the contest shortly after Corker took the state and Washington by surprise when he announced Sept. 26 he would not seek a third term. That came after an ongoing public Twitter feud between Corker and President Donald Trump.
That culminated in October with Trump tweeting Corker unsuccessfully "begged" him for his endorsement and decided he would retire because he "didn't have the guts" to run for re-election. The senator called the White House an "adult day care center" and questioned whether any adults were on duty.
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insists the two are now getting along, that he speaks with Trump frequently, as well as top administration and White House officials and Trump's close adviser and daughter, Ivanka.
Not long after Corker got out of the contest and Blackburn jumped in, former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., threw his hat into the ring. A number of top businessmen who have contributed to Corker, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam contributed to Fincher, whose campaign is being run by a former Trump presidential campaign operative.
Among those contributing was the governor's own father, Pilot Flying J founder James Haslam II, who along with his wife, Natalie, each gave Fincher $5,400 for the primary and general election campaign.
Blackburn has since raised $1.9 million, with donations including $10,000 from Vice President Mike Pence's Great America PAC, $4,500 from Koch Industries Inc. PAC and $2,500 from the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund.
But there's been continuing unease over Blackburn's candidacy among some Tennessee Republicans about whether the sometimes-fiery partisan will appeal to a general electorate. Others counter that the criticisms are coming from the GOP's old guard.
There's been worry that Bredesen, a pro-business Democrat who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 with Republican support, could put the Tennessee Senate seat in play in a closely divided 100-member Senate chamber where Republicans have only a 51-senator majority.
On Sunday, a senior adviser to Corker acknowledged some Tennesseans and Senate colleagues were asking him to reconsider his decision but noted "at this point nothing has changed."
The statement came after CNN raised the possibility that the Chattanoogan might be reconsidering, saying he had had conversations with a few colleagues, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
It was unclear who had first approached him on the issue. But the view is that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have to speak with Trump to have a chance of that happening. McConnell has evidently been reluctant to do so.
In a statement, Bredesen spokeswoman Alyssa Hansen said regarding Corker's possible re-entry that "this speculation changes nothing. Governor Bredesen got in this race to be a true advocate for the people of Tennessee in the Senate, not to run against anyone. As he travels to all corners of the state, the Governor's case for bringing Congress back to basics is clearly resonating with Tennessee voters."
Earlier Tuesday, Haslam said that while Corker is a friend, "I haven't personally encouraged him" to reconsider but he had "read all the reports everyone else has. And I really don't have any insight into whether Bob's going to do that or not."
The governor said he doesn't know how serious the senator is about getting into the race.
Asked whether he believes Blackburn can win a statewide general election, Haslam said, "I do. Two things, as everybody knows this is a very red state and I think the chances of a Republican nominee winning the governor or Senate race is very strong.
"That being said, you have to remember two things," Haslam added. "This is a mid-term election and any party in the White House, they get to lose seats in state races whether it be legislative, governor or Senate races. So that's just a reality. It's a lot more difficult when your party is in the White House."
Moreover, Haslam said, "there's no hiding it. The Democrats have a strong candidate in former Gov. Bredesen. So do I still think the Republican will win? I do. But we shouldn't take it for granted."
Haslam said while he knows and likes Fincher, he's made no calls on his behalf.
Asked about his father's support of Fincher, the governor said "he's given to a lot of things I haven't. He gets to do what he would like to."
Haslam said "I really don't" envision endorsing anyone in either the GOP Senate or gubernatorial primary.
"I just don't at this point in time have any plans to do that."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated Feb. 13, 2018, at 10:52 p.m. with more information.