Not so long ago, Bob Corker was not so sure he wanted another six-year term in the U.S. Senate because of frustration over congressional inaction, which he compares to “watching paint dry.”
“Most people who know me know that all last year, I really had to think about that myself,” he said in a telephone interview from his Washington office.”If you have led a productive life, you have to wonder it it’s worth your time being here.
“But, for what it’s worth, I have become more optimistic than I have been in a long time that we will rise up and deal with our nation’s problems … just because frustrations are so high, on both sides of the aisle.”
With his newly formed belief that congressional frustration levels are on the verge of reaching the breaking point, especially on the overriding issue of dealing with national debt, Corker said he decided to run again.
“I want to be part of solving that problem, and I think I will be,” he said.
By all conventional political wisdom, there’s really not much doubt that Corker will be re-elected to a second term.
He had raised $12.5 million at last report on March 31. The four rival Republicans, seven Democrats and five other candidates who have qualified as Senate candidates have, collectively, raised about $140,000.
“It appears possible that we are in a pretty good situation to be re-elected,” said Corker, who acknowledged he does not know the names of the others running for his seat.
The senator said he had heard of Park Overall, apparently the best-known of all his aspiring challengers, thanks to a seven-year stint as “Nurse Lavergne” in the NBC television series “Empty Nest” and other acting roles, including the current movie “In the Family.”
Overall, 55, who lives in her native Greene County, unabashedly declares herself a “liberal Democrat” and said in an interview that she overcame an initial reluctance to run after repeated entreaties from state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester and other party activists.
Indeed, one of Overall’s primary opponents, Larry Crim of Nashville, has complained of party favoritism toward Overall’s candidacy.
Told that Crim calls her “Chip’s choice,” Overall replied in an interview, “That would be true.” She said Forrester had recently promised to “put me up in the Peabody Hotel” during a forthcoming campaign trip to Memphis.
Forrester, however, said in an interview that he was neutral in the primary.
Crim also questioned whether “Hollywood actress” Overall showed herself out-of-step with Tennessee values by issuing a press release — including the declaration “hallelujah and what took so long?” — in praise of President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. She said the U.S. Constitution gives same sex-couples the same rights as others.
As a person who is “wildly progressive,” Overall said she may well be out-of-step with state political thinking on some matters.
“Whether anyone listens or not, I am going to tell them the truth,” she said, and is now an enthusiastic candidate intent on promoting environmental protection, unions, separation of church and state, women’s equality and veterans rights while opposing growing corporation control over government and politics.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an anarchist, but I’d like to be,” she quipped.
Other Democrats qualifying as U.S. Senate candidates are Mark E. Clayton of Whites Creek, Gary Gene Davis of Nashville, Dave Hancock of Maryville, T.K. Owens of Jonesborough and Benjamin Roberts of Jasper.
While Overall labels Corker a “corporate pawn” and says he is overly conservative, his Republican primary opponents declare him not nearly conservative enough.
Brenda Lenard of Sweetwater calls Corker “Big Government Bob.” Zach Poskevich of Hendersonville says Corker has not upheld the U.S. Constitution.
“Corker is saying government knows best and he goes along to get along,” said Poskevich, a Desert Storm veteran who lives in Hendersonville.
Others opposing Corker in the GOP primary are Fred Anderson of Maryville and Mark Twain Clemens of Rockvale.
A common theme of Corker’s conservative critics seems to be his vote in favor of raising the national debt ceiling. The senator notes that came in conjunction with planned cuts in federal spending.
“What I think I voted for is $2.1 trillion in reductions,” he said, adding that he has devoted “a great deal of time” during his first term toward learning the “intricacies of our fiscal situation.”
“The ironic thing about all this is we have all kinds of folks voting against all debt ceiling increases, but they vote for all the spending increases,” he said.
He shrugs aside criticism of his conservative credentials, saying any rating of senators on fiscal conservatism would put him on the “short list.”
As for social issues, the senator indicated they pale in comparison to the importance of dealing with national debt and overspending, and perhaps to foreign relations. The recent Republican primary defeat of Indiana U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar means Corker is now the senior GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Asked about same-sex marriage, for example, Corker said he answered that question in his 2006 campaign — he is opposed — and “nothing has changed since.” The implication: It’s not worth much discussion these days.
While saying he intends to keep up a schedule of regular visits to Tennessee, Corker said he is “not out there giving political messages and all that” and does not foresee any intense campaigning in the coming months. The primary is Aug. 2.
“I want my campaign to be my serving in the Senate,” he said.
Besides the Republican and Democratic opponents, Corker will have five persons qualifying as independent candidates as options on the November general election ballot. They include Shawn E. Crowell of Spring Hill, a Libertarian who will have his party identified on the ballot as a result of a recent court decision, along with David Gatchall of Franklin, James Higdon of Jacksboro, Michael Joseph Long of Lenoir City and Troy Stephen Scoggin of Franklin.
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt University who has authored a book on the U.S. Senate, said that Corker’s re-election is assured “unless Corker does something absolutely unfathomable to embarrass himself” between now and election day.
Mostly, he said, that is because of money and name recognition. Oppenheimer, who follows politics in Tennessee and elsewhere, said he had personally not heard of any of Corker’s opponents, with the possible exception of Overall.
“This is something that feeds on itself. People give money to candidates who are known quantities, the money brings media attention, the media attention brings money,” he said.
Oppenheimer also points out that, assuming there is an anti-Corker vote in the Republican primary, that vote is split between multiple candidates — none with the funding to gain statewide name recognition.
In 2006, Corker faced serious primary opposition from two former congressmen and wound up winning a plurality victory with less than half of the vote. In the general election, he faced Democrat Harold Ford Jr., who fell about 50,000 votes short of Corker after an intense, heated campaign.
In that race, Corker spent $18,859,449, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ford spent $14,303,967.
As of the last report for the 2012 race, Lenard led all Corker opponents with $58,349 collected. Poskevich had $48,839. Crim led Democrats in fundraising with $6,200.
Overall, who did not qualify as a candidate until April and has thus not been required to file a disclosure report, said she has raised “about $10,000, so we are closing in” on Corker with $12.5 million. She said several fundraising events are on her schedule, but “maybe no money is the point” in making a run at the incumbent.
Poskevich noted that Corker has already spend about $4 million of the $12.5 million he has raised in the current election cycle to little apparent purpose compared with “the momentum we have built with the average citizen” as evidenced by his victories in straw polls at various Republican events.
“If it’s all about money, our founding fathers would never have taken on King George,” he said.