Sen. Lamar Alexander will not run for reelection




Lamar Alexander talks to POLITICO in his office

Sen. Lamar Alexander speaks to POLITICO inside his office during a February 2017 interview as the GOP continued to debate changes to the Affordable Care Act. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Congress

The Tennessee Republican, known for his ability to work with both sides of the aisle, will not run for reelection.

Updated


Lamar Alexander decided he wouldn’t run for reelection this past August during his regular fishing trip in Canada. And then he kept the decision to himself for four months.

On Monday, the Tennessee Republican announced he would not run for another term in the Senate, a decision that represents a body blow to the institution and comes as a surprise to many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. He said he thought he was still effective as a legislator and could win reelection but felt it was time to give someone else a chance to represent the state.

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“I feel like I’m doing my job better than I ever have,” Alexander said by telephone on Monday afternoon. “I still think it’s possible to get a lot done. I just wish it were easier.”

On Sunday, he called up President Donald Trump to deliver the news of his retirement. Even before Alexander could get to the reason he was calling, Trump asked him to stay in the Senate for 20 more years, Alexander said in the interview. Trump momentarily mourned Alexander’s departure, before congratulating him on a long career.

A former governor, Cabinet member, presidential candidate and now the chairman of the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander decided to call it quits after three terms despite polls showing him in strong position for 2020.

Alexander is widely respected by Democrats and Republicans, the rare senator who is close to both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). With his retirement, the Senate will lose a key negotiating conduit during times of crisis.

Though not a true moderate, like Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins, Alexander’s brand of politics contrasts sharply with that of Trump and younger, more conservative Republicans who have won election in recent years.

Alexander supported the 2013 bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill that Trump loathes and also declined to sign a 2015 letter to Iranian leaders undercutting President Barack Obama‘s efforts to reach a nuclear deal. He also left the party leadership in 2011 so that he could pursue more bipartisan legislating.

“Sen. Alexander has a unique capacity to bring people together. He is a problem solver at a time when too many people in politics want to talk about a problem rather than solve a problem,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

If he ran again, it would be in an increasingly conservative state and on the same ballot as Trump. Though he beat back a conservative challenge in 2014, the state has continued to tilt rightward even as Alexander pursued bipartisan deal-making on Capitol Hill. Still, a recent poll showed Alexander with 69 percent approval among Republican primary voters.

In the short term, Alexander’s retirement also means the Tennessee delegation will lose significant seniority in the Senate. Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is retiring at the end of this year after two terms.

“I often tell him he is the legislator of the decade because of the effective way he has worked across the aisle to pass legislation that directly affects the lives of so many throughout our state and around the country,” Corker said on Monday. “As one of the finest statesmen our state has ever seen, Lamar will leave behind a remarkable legacy.“

Alexander indicated he won’t join Corker in vocally critiquing the president after choosing retirement over reelection.

“I think I’ll be the same,” Alexander said. “I work with the president when I can, and when I don’t [agree, I] tell him respectfully and, usually, in private.”

The retirement of the deal-making duo could lead to a more conservative delegation. Corker will be replaced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who is more of a partisan warrior than Alexander or Corker, and the state’s GOP primaries could produce a conservative replacement for Alexander, too.

The candidate field is likely to balloon quickly.

Tennessee’s outgoing centrist Republican governor, Bill Haslam, is sure to get attention as a possible candidate to succeed Alexander. Haslam and Alexander were together on Monday for Haslam’s official portrait unveiling, according to a person familiar with their interactions.

Alexander said Haslam and Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty are the “obvious favorites … in addition to four or five of our congressmen.”

Rep. David Kustoff is looking at running for the seat, according to a source with knowledge of the congressman’s thinking. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said, “I intend to keep an open mind towards the future, but I am solely focused on the responsibilities of my current role for the time being.”

Dr. Manny Sethi, a surgeon at Vanderbilt University, has also floated a potential candidacy if Alexander did not seek reelection. Former Rep. Stephen Fincher, who briefly ran for Tennessee’s other Senate seat, could potentially mount another campaign — he has $1.7 million remaining from his previous bid, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

And Rep-elect. Mark Green had begun making calls to some Republicans touting his potential as a statewide candidate before Alexander announced his retirement, according to multiple Tennessee Republican sources.

In a statement, Green did not address a potential candidacy, but said his focus is on his new role as an incoming member of the House. But Club for Growth President David McIntosh issued a statement encouraging Green to run for the Senate seat, calling him a “rising star in Tennessee politics.”

“The Senate needs more fiscal conservatives like Mark Green,” McIntosh said. “He would be a tremendous addition to the Senate, and Club for Growth PAC would welcome his candidacy.”

Unless Republicans flounder in recruiting, the GOP will be heavily favored to retain Alexander’s seat. Democrats tried to contest Blackburn’s campaign with moderate former Gov. Phil Bredesen, but he lost badly.

Alexander has two more years as committee chairman ahead of him, which could be a crucial perch given the legal uncertainty around Obamacare. His recent tenure has been defined by an ability to negotiate new health care and education laws with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the HELP Committee.

But since the failure of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal, Alexander has had little success negotiating a bipartisan bill to shore up health insurance markets with Murray. They might need to dust off their old compromise, however: A judge in Texas ruled against the law last week and the case could be appealed to the Supreme Court and eventually require quick, bipartisan work in Congress.

Alex Isenstadt, James Arkin and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.

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