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NASHVILLE — U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's announcement Tuesday he won't seek a third term may spur the political equivalent of a gold rush among ambitious Republicans in a state with only three statewide elected offices and where vacancies don't often occur.
Corker told Washington-based reporters that in a state with a tradition of having "outstanding senators ... I wanted to make sure there was time for someone of that caliber to consider it and be able to run and win the race, you know, to be well prepared to serve."
He already faced a Republican primary challenge from Andy Ogles, former state executive director of the billionaire Koch brothers-supported Americans for Prosperity- Tennessee.
Ogles issued a statement saying, "I appreciate Senator Corker's service and the decision to end his 12 year tenure in Washington D.C."
But Ogles could find himself vying with one or more heavyweight contenders.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, a mainstream but often fiscally conservative Republican, is term-limited but enjoys good poll numbers among Democrats as well as Republicans. Asked whether Haslam might run for Corker's seat, Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals said by email, "[T]oday is a day to thank Sen. Corker for his service and I will not be issuing any other responses today."
If Haslam does decide to get in "there's no doubt about it things would change," according to a Republican political strategist.
Meanwhile, 7th District U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a long-time favorite of ardent conservatives, also thanked Corker for his service. Her spokeswoman, Darcy Anderson, also declined to say whether she would consider a run.
Blackburn later tweeted an image of the state, with an American flag on a red background and the slogan "Stand with Marsha." Not long after, she tweeted a similar image with the words "Pledge your support for Tennessee's conservative voice. Add your name."
There's speculation that former University of Tennessee, Indiana Colts and Denver Broncos star quarterback Peyton Manning might run.
Manning and Corker have palled around publicly, with Manning speaking at Republican senators' annual retreat earlier this year and the pair joining President Donald Trump for golf.
Former state Sen. Mark Green, R-Ashland City, who dropped a gubernatorial bid, then withdrew as a candidate for Army secretary after his controversial remarks about Muslims and the LGBT community, is considering a bid.
The same goes for former state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, another conservative who did better than expected in the 2014 GOP primary against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Independent polls showed Corker could be vulnerable in a GOP primary. His comments last month that Trump had not demonstrated the "competence" or "stability" to succeed as president made national news.
Though Corker said he and Trump get along fine, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon reportedly had been searching for a candidate to take on Corker.
Corker also faced a challenge from a credible Democratic candidate for the first time since his 2006 slugfest with Democrat Harold Ford Jr.
Nashville attorney James Mackler, a decorated Iraq war veteran, has attracted attention from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has avoided Tennessee since the Ford contest.
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