U.S. Sen. Bob Corker could find himself among moderate Republican lawmakers facing tea party-backed challenges in 2012 GOP primaries, conservative activists warn.
Some activists, upset with the first-term senator for supporting the 2008 bank bailout and for reaching out to Democrats in areas such as financial regulatory reform this year, say they'll be keeping an eye on the Chattanooga Republican.
"Should he not evidence his conservative bona fides in the new year, then it is highly likely that the tea party movement in Tennessee will look for a candidate who will contend for his job in 2012," Memphis Tea Party Chairman Mark Skoda said last week. "It's that simple."
Right after the Nov. 2 elections, Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the conservative blog RedState.org, singled out Corker and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., as "exciting prospects for the tea party movement" in 2012.
Tea party activists are credited with energizing and shaking up the Republican Party nationally this year with primary victories in a number of states, including Kentucky and Florida.
In August, Corker launched a series of town hall meetings playing up an issue dear to tea party activists' hearts -- the view that out-of-control federal spending is leading to ruinous debt. He held his 46th such event Friday in Chattanooga, sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and emphasized the need for spending caps.
Corker acknowledged some conservatives objected to his support of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008, although he noted that he opposed the way many of those funds were spent.
"You get up every day, you work hard and you try to call them like you see them," Corker said. "Somebody who is as actively involved as I am, especially on some of the toughest issues in the country, is always going to draw critics, and I understand that."
The senator said he has been deeply involved in negotiations on financial regulation, government aid for the auto industry and proposed "cap and trade" controls on pollution.
Corker said his participation improved the final Democratic bills on those issues, even though he ended up opposing all of them.
A former Chattanooga mayor and former state finance commissioner, Corker said he hears "a lot of people saying, 'no compromises.'"
"I would never compromise my principles," he said. "On the other hand, it takes two people sitting down together, and it's going to take both sides of the aisle working together, to solve the major problems we have facing us in the future."
One of those "no compromisers" gave Corker an earful Thursday in Nashville at one of the senator's town hall budget meetings.
Tea party activist Karen Boswell told the senator in no uncertain terms to warn Republican colleagues about making deals with Democrats.
"There seems to be talk of compromising and ... business as usual," Boswell said.
"While you may raise your hand across the aisle, those on the other side may shake your hand; they may smack your hand; they may ignore it. But we, the people at the ballot box, will amputate it if you do that."
Antonio Hinton, founder of the Knoxville Tea Party, is still seething at Corker.
He called Corker a RINO -- Republican in name only -- and "part of the problem."
But not all tea party activists feel the same.
Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West said he was critical of Corker's support of the bank bailout. But he sees criticism now coming from Libertarian-leaning groups upset over Corker's refusal to join U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who is calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve.
"Some of the other issues other people are being critical of, I'm not sure they're founded," West said.
He's not sure he agrees with those who oppose any talks with the other side.
"But the reason to sit down is not to compromise but to bring them to your side," West said.
Poll points to support
Corker and aides, meanwhile, point to a June statewide poll conducted for Bill Haslam in the Republican gubernatorial race that showed widespread support within the tea party movement for the senator.
The survey of 600 likely voters was conducted by GOP pollster Ayres, McHenry and Associates Inc. It showed that 72 percent of those saying they support the tea party and had attended a rally had favorable feelings for Corker.
The Haslam poll shows "we're much stronger among the tea partiers than we are among Republicans as a whole, and we seem to have very good support across our party and state," Corker said.
Steve Gill, a Nashville-based, nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host, said Corker's "big problem" is his "appearance of cooperation when you really can't trust the other side."
But putting Corker's "rhetoric" aside, "when you look at that voting record, I think, with some exceptions, there really hasn't been a RINO tag that can be put on him."
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said the problem for conservative activists would be finding someone "who's visible enough and can fund a campaign" to run against Corker.
Corker, a self-made millionaire, spent some of his personal fortune in his 2006 contest.
Oppenheimer said he worries as a matter of public policy about the impact of increasingly harsh criticisms by conservatives against Corker and Republicans. He raised similar concerns about liberals who have attacked Democrats they see as wayward.
Under our governing system, it's "difficult enough to get things done even when you can build compromise and consensus," he said. "It's not easy and it's made more difficult when people say, 'Oh, we'll just wait until the next election.'"