WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee and a political force on financial issues, announced Tuesday he would not seek re-election.
The 65-year-old lawmaker, who recently had been encouraged by President Donald Trump to seek a third term, made the surprise announcement hours before a showdown vote in an Alabama Senate runoff that pitted the establishment favorite against firebrand Judge Roy Moore.
“After much thought, consideration and family discussion over the past year, Elizabeth and I have decided that I will leave the United States Senate when my term expires at the end of 2018,” Corker said in a statement.
Corker has helmed the Foreign Relations panel, playing a significant role on Russia and Iran sanctions, and was considered a possible secretary of state in the Trump Cabinet before the president tapped Rex Tillerson. A member of the Banking Committee, Corker had his hand in major financial legislation.
Despite expressing doubts about another bid, Corker had a $6.5 million balance in his campaign account at the end of the last reporting period, the most among GOP senators facing re-elections next year. Corker has increased his cash on hand by $1 million, according to his office.
The senator had criticized Trump after he blamed both white nationalists and anti-racist protesters for the violence at an August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Corker questioned whether Trump had shown the “stability” and “competence” to succeed in office.
Trump responded on Twitter, “Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in ’18.” Trump added, “Tennessee not happy!”
The announcement quickly set off heavy speculation in Tennessee about which Republicans could run to replace him, ranging from former NFL and University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning to term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam.
Manning, Corker and President Trump went on a highly-publicized golf outing earlier this year, and the quarterback also attended a Republican congressional retreat.
Corker and Haslam are close family friends, and the senator helped persuade the popular governor to first run for public office when he made a successful bid for mayor of Knoxville in 2003.
Earlier Tuesday, when he was pressed on whether the Republicans should hold a vote on a health care bill, he put off the question by saying: “I’m not much of a politician, as you know. So I’ll let people who worry about politician-y things decide that.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Corker as an “integral member of our team and confidant of mine during his time in the Senate. His leadership on important issues has helped guide our conference and had a real impact at home and abroad.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called Corker a “model senator, adding, “We all regret him leaving.”
Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate, but establishment candidates backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have come under fire from the right, with critics questioning their fealty to Trump. Republican incumbents in Nevada and Arizona face primary challengers.
The biggest test for the GOP establishment is in Alabama, where Sen. Luther Strange is locked in a runoff Tuesday against Moore.
Corker took over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 after Republicans took control of the Senate. The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, gave Corker high marks for running the committee in an inclusive, bipartisan way.
But Corker emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. At a September 2016 hearing on Syria, Corker assailed President Barack Obama and his administration for refusing to take the necessary steps to get humanitarian aid into Syria and to deter Bashar Assad’s military forces from targeting civilians. He considered Obama to be unreliable on foreign affairs, declaring that the president wasn’t willing to “roll up sleeves and deal with the tough issues that we have to deal with.”
Corker also could be an iconoclast. In 2015, as Republican criticism of the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran escalated, Corker was one of a handful of Republicans who declined to sign a letter circulated by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that was addressed directly to Iran’s leaders warning them that any accord Obama struck could be undone.
He was first elected to the Senate in 2006 and two years later became a member of the Banking Committee. He played a key role in the negotiations that bailed out the collapsing financial industry with the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. But he’d later disparage the program as a slush fund and vote to shut it down and use any of the remaining money to pay down the federal debt.
Corker criticized the major U.S. automakers who also sought a multi-billion dollar bailout in late 2008. He’d offer an alternative proposal that imposed stiffer requirements on the auto companies that Detroit opposed but which eventually were followed by the Obama administration’s task force on the auto industry.
He reached across the aisle in 2010, joining Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on provisions for the orderly liquidation of financial firms deemed “too big to fail” that were included in Dodd-Frank, the banking law created after the 2008 economic crisis.
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Tennessee contributed.