NASHVILLE — Retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is catching flak from top GOP Senate leaders over favorable remarks he's made about Democrat and former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is vying with Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn for Corker's Senate seat.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor and state finance commissioner, was warned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that his comments on Bredesen and other matters risk hurting GOP efforts to hold on to its razor-thin majority in November's mid-term elections.
Meanwhile, Sen. Corey Gardner, R-Colo., who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, went public with his displeasure about Corker's remarks regarding Bredesen during a conversation with the Washington Examiner editorial board.
"No, it's not helpful when you have Republicans say that they're going to get out of the way of an Obama acolyte," Gardener said.
Corker's office had no comment Friday.
Asked about Bredesen in early April during a visit to the Tennessee Capitol, Corker made no bones about his respect for and friendship with the former governor and Nashville mayor.
"Look, Bredesen as you know is a good friend of mine and I worked with him as mayor," Corker said, citing Bredesen's help as governor in helping transform the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant in Chattanooga into today's Enterprise South and guaranteeing a new I-75 interchange for the site.
As governor, Bredesen also worked successfully with then-Sen. Corker, then-Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., among others, to help persuade Volkswagen to locate its only U.S. auto-assembly plant to the site.
Since then, a number of auto-part manufacturer suppliers have located to the Chattanooga areas.
"I got a great deal of respect for [Bredesen] and known from the very beginning when he began to think about running for Senate that he would be a very serious candidate, and he is," added Corker, who as state finance commissioner in the mid-1990s got to know Bredesen, who was then mayor of Nashville.
The friendship began when Bredesen and Corker successfully worked to persuade owners of the then-Houston Oilers and now Tennessee Titans to re-locate to Nashville. That came despite grumblings from Corker's then-boss, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, and a top Sundquist deputy, Peaches Blank Simpkins, who weren't happy over Corker's dealings with Bredesen. Sundquist beat Bredesen in a bitter 1994 governor's contest.
Corker also told Tennessee reporters that "it'd be too early to make any prognostications today" on the Bredesen/Blackburn match-up, noting that "it looks like it's obviously going to be a very competitive race. I think people have been predicting that from the very beginning."
The senator didn't endorse Blackburn at the time, further telling Tennessee reporters "it's always been my plan to endorse after a primary is over." But Corker later announced he was contributing to Blackburn's campaign after the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee bounced several would-be Blackburn opponents off the Aug. 2 GOP primary ballot.
Fast forward to a week ago when Corker described Bredesen to The National Journal "as a very substantial person. And he no doubt will attract a lot of Republican votes."
Moreover, Corker said, "I certainly do not plan to be working against somebody who is a friend and who has served our state ably. We've worked together to build a great state."
Meanwhile, Bredesen, who has said he wouldn't have entered the contest had Corker sought re-election, confirmed to the Times Free Press last week that he had suggested to Corker he seek a third U.S. Senate term at a time the senator was also eyeing the open governor's seat.
"I guess what I specifically told him was if you want the job that's most fun, you ought to run for governor. And if you want the job that's probably most useful to the country today, stay where you are," Bredesen said.
President Donald Trump, with whom Corker has had an at-times tumultuous relationship, posted his full-throated support for Blackburn, a sometimes-fiery conservative who has sided with Trump on a number of issues and avoided direct criticisms.
Trump pledged to come to Tennessee and campaign with her.
"@MarshaBlackburn is a wonderful woman who has always been there when we have needed her," Trump tweeted. "Great on the Military, Border Security and Crime. Loves and works hard for the people of Tennessee. She has my full endorsement and I will be there to campaign with her!"
The blunt Corker, meanwhile, said in response to a question Wednesday at a breakfast event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that "any Republican senator who hasn't been conflicted over this presidency is either comatose or is pretty useless in their blindness."
According to The Washington Post, McConnell and Corker had a "lengthy discussion" on the Senate floor Wednesday about his various remarks, citing three people with knowledge of the conversation. McConnell told Corker the comments were unhelpful — both in the Tennessee race and in the larger fight to retain the GOP's Senate majority, the newspaper reported.
Meanwhile Gardner, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, told the Washington Examiner the committee will put resources in Tennessee where one recent poll shows Bredesen with a 10-point advantage over Blackburn and another earlier survey showed Bredesen competitive with Blackburn. Other surveys have shown Blackburn ahead.
"Chuck Schumer says that the road to his majority goes through Tennessee," Gardner was quoted saying of the Senate Democratic leader from New York. "I take him seriously, I take him at his word. And that's why we're building a firewall around Tennessee that won't allow that to happen."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.