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Senate Control Could Decide Opportunities in Tennessee

Future congressional opportunities in Tennessee might hang on the balance of power in the Senate over the next two cycles.

Volunteer State operatives from both sides of the aisle say if the GOP doesn’t gain control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections and keep it beyond 2016, Sen. Bob Corker may leave Capitol Hill for Tennessee’s open gubernatorial election in 2018.

“Sen. Corker is sometimes very frustrated with the process in the Senate, he is someone whose mindset is executive oriented,” one Tennessee GOP operative said. “He’s got an impressive private sector background and he’s used to getting things done, and that is the antithesis of the Senate.”

If Corker forgoes re-election in 2018 to run for governor, he’d likely clear the gubernatorial field, GOP insiders said.

A number of strong Republican candidates would then surface for Corker’s Senate spot — a likely safe Republican seat that would be up for grabs for the first time since Republican Bill Frist retired in 2006. Al Gore’s 1990 victory is the last time a Democrat won a Senate seat in Tennessee.

GOP operatives say if Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who is term-limited in 2018, decides to run for Corker’s open Senate seat, his vast personal wealth would make him a tough candidate to beat. The Haslam family — one of the 400 richest families in America — owns a chain of truck stops throughout the United States and Canada and is reportedly worth more than $1.45 billion, according to Forbes.

If Haslam doesn’t run for Senate, other Tennessee power brokers could look to wage bids.

They include:

State Speaker Beth Harwell. A prolific fundraiser from Belle Meade, a Nashville suburb home to wealthy celebrities such as Taylor Swift, GOP operatives say Harwell has worked to raise her profile in recent years for future political bids.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett. A former Republican leader in the Tennessee General Assembly, Hargett has ties to a donor base in the state.

Bill Hagerty, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, could also take a look at a run.

GOP operatives said two-term Rep. Diane Black could also make a bid for the Senate seat, and could potentially clear the field if she got in. The dominoes of opportunity would continue to fall with a Black Senate bid. For her hypothetically open 6th District seat, GOP operatives say state Sen. Mark Green would be a strong contender. A retired Army major, Green was part of Operation Red Dawn, which oversaw the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Republicans add that 8th District Rep. Stephen Fincher, a prolific fundraiser from the Memphis suburbs, is angling for a role as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman down the line. However, they say Fincher could also wage a gubernatorial bid if no other high-ranking Republicans enter the open-seat race in 2018.

On the Democratic side, opportunities are few and far between in this Republican-trending state. Democrats could not find a candidate to put up against Haslam this cycle, and Democratic operatives say finding other statewide candidates in the future could be tough.

One potential Senate candidate is Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. The next federal opportunities to arise for Democrats are in the state’s two safe Democratic seats of Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen.

Democratic operatives say many Democrats are waiting for the 12-term Cooper to hang it up, and say a number of Nashville-based elected officials will take a look his seat. They include:

Nashville City Councilwoman Megan Barry, currently running for mayor in 2015.

State Senate candidate Jeff Yarbro, who Democratic operatives say has a bright political future.

Attorney John Ray Clemmons, who Democratic operatives say is likely to wage a bid for the state House and could look toward a seat in Congress some day.

Cohen, whose outspoken personality earned him a barrage of press in 2013, has had primary opposition each cycle since he was first elected in 2006. In the Memphis-based, African-American-majority 9th District, the intraparty challenges are unlikely to halt.

Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Mark Green’s title when he retired from the military. He was a major.

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