In between jabs at his own party’s campaign arm over a leaked conversation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) offered faint praise for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the leading Republican to replace him.
“Well, I’m supporting the nominee,” Corker told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “Everyone knows that. I have sent the maximum check, plan to vote for them. What is unbelievable to me, George, is that the leadership of the [National] Republican Senatorial Committee would leak out this conversation purposely to the Washington Post to get you to ask me questions about this. I don’t even know what they’re thinking.”
The trouble started on Wednesday, when Corker spoke generously at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast about Tennessee’s former governor and the leading Democrat running to fill his Senate seat, Phil Bredeson. Corker said among other things that he wouldn’t campaign “against someone who I’ve been a friend with and worked with.” Tennessee’s Senate primary is in August, but Blackburn and Bredeson are by far the favored candidates for their respective parties.
The Washington Post then reported some well-sourced gossip about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction to Corker’s comments:
McConnell and Corker, who has said he will support Blackburn, had a lengthy discussion on the Senate floor Wednesday about his remarks, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation. McConnell told Corker his comments were unhelpful — both in the Tennessee race and in the larger battle for the Senate majority, the individuals said.
McConnell also reminded Corker that Republicans were in the current situation only because Corker had decided to retire. Bredesen, a top Democratic recruit, entered the race after Corker bowed out. The conversation did not end on a confrontational note, the individuals said.
“What do you think they are thinking?” Stephanopoulos asked about the conversation Corker said had been leaked.
“I have no idea,” the senator responded. “I mean, it’s the most ridiculous thing I have seen politically in recent times. Apparently they want you to ask me about the Tennessee race.”
“And the answer, as you just said, [is that] you’re supporting the Republican nominee Marsha Blackburn?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Yes,” Corker replied. “I mean, it’s been clear. I sent the maximum check as soon as it was determined that she was our nominee.”
“What I said was I’ve got a friend that I’ve been working with for 23 years on the Democratic side,” he continued. “We have worked– I was mayor of Chattanooga. I was commissioner of finance for our state. We’ve done a lot of things together and he’s a friend. I’m not going to campaign against him. But, certainly, I’ve sent the maximum contribution, plan to support the nominee.”
“And yet,” he pointed out, “for some reason in their brilliance, the Republican Senatorial Committee tried to create big story out of this so you and other stations this morning would ask me questions. I don’t know what the outcome is they’re looking for here, but obviously, it’s again being asked.”
When CNN’s Dana Bash again asked Corker about McConnell and race to fill Corker’s seat later Sunday, the Tennessee senator had the same answer: He wouldn’t campaign against Bredesen, a friend, he said, but he had donated to “the Republican nominee” — he never said Blackburn’s name, in either interview — and planned to vote for her.
“It’s hard to believe that the leadership of the Senatorial committee on the Republican side would even leak that story out to the Washington Post and cause you to ask me about it,” he said.
Bash asked why Corker would tell Republicans to elect Blackburn rather than Bredesen.
“Well, I think most people in our state — it is a red state — will focus on the first vote she makes,” Corker said. “And that’s the vote to elect the majority leader. And I think at the end of the day, that’s going to be a big factor in the race.”
“But, you know, Dana, the rest of the story wasn’t written during the interview I had with the Christian Science Monitor–”
Bash interjected, pointing out that it was “not a ringing endorsement.”’
“Well–” Corker hesitated a few seconds. “Dana, I’m supporting the nominee. I’ve worked with the nominee some time, and I don’t know what else to say.”