By Elizabeth Bewley | Tennessean Washington Bureau
Critics took aim at Republican Sen. Bob Corker last month after he called for a hearing to investigate more than $2 billion in trading losses at JPMorgan, then used the occasion to heap praise on CEO Jamie Dimon.
Corker called Dimon "one of the best CEOs in the country for financial institutions" and deemed the losses, which the New York Times reported last week could total as much as $9 billion, a "blip on the radar screen."
Those statements have fueled claims by Corker's challengers from both parties that the senator's allegiance lies with big campaign donors and not ordinary Tennesseans -- a theme they will try to hammer home as elections draw near.
Seven Democrats, four Republicans and five independents will vie for the chance to unseat Corker in the Aug. 2 primary.
JPMorgan has contributed more to Corker's campaign than all but two other organizations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The senator, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, has received $10,000 from the company's political action committee and $54,000 from individuals who work for the bank. His No. 1 contributor is Goldman Sachs, whose employees have given $71,700.
In a recent interview, Corker dismissed claims that he is too closely allied with big banks. He said he was just "being a gentleman" when he praised Dimon at last month's hearing.
"I tend to ask very tough questions and end up in a place of supporting very good policy in our nation," he said, adding that he was the senator who first called for the hearing on JPMorgan's losses.
'He's a hollow suit'
The Democrats vying to oppose Corker in November say corporate influence excludes ordinary Tennesseans from the political process.
"He's a hollow suit," said Park Overall, an actress and environmentalist from Greeneville who said she entered the race at the urging of the Tennessee Democratic Party. "He goes to the highest bidder."
Corker's Republican challengers say the senator's financial ties to large corporations partly explain why his voting record isn't as conservative as they think it should be.
They point to vote ratings by the conservative group Heritage Action for America, which said Corker voted conservatively only 74 percent of the time, and by the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly, which found Corker voted with President Barack Obama's position 61 percent of the time last year.
"Just look to see who's contributing to his campaign," said Zach Poskevich, a tea party-backed Republican from Hendersonville. He said that might explain why Corker voted for the 2008 bank bailout and for the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program that offered consumers rebates to trade in gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars.
Poskevich and Brenda Lenard, a Republican from the Knoxville suburbs who also has tea party support, slammed Corker for his involvement in discussions about financial reform legislation. Corker was one of the few Republicans willing to negotiate with Democrats on what became the 2010 financial reform law known as Dodd-Frank.
"If you want to help Tennessee citizens and the people of the United States, the government would get out of the banking business, period," Lenard said. "You cannot just have one big, broad policy that's going to solve every possible incident that comes up."
Corker said Dodd-Frank went too far and has created uncertainty among businesses, but he thinks there is a role for government in regulating financial institutions and markets.
"What's happened is that the administration has responded (to the financial crisis) by trying to put a regulator in the seat of every banker," he said. "What we really need to be doing is regulating the markets."
That will be an issue he focuses on during his next term, he said. He wants the government to unwind the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and clamp down on loopholes in new rules targeting risky derivatives, such as credit default swaps.
He added that Congress should consider strengthening Dodd-Frank's capital requirements -- rules limiting how much debt banks can take on -- for "highly complex institutions" such as JPMorgan. That would help address a major question he has about the financial system: "Are these complex institutions too complex to manage?"
Corker said he also will push for a compromise bill to deal with the nation's growing debt. He's writing legislation that would reform the tax code and expensive entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but he doesn't expect any action on the issue until after the elections in November.
"Nobody's been more active in focusing on fiscal solvency than me," he said.
His Republican opponents disagree, saying Corker should have voted against raising the nation's debt limit last summer. Corker has defended his vote for a debt compromise by pointing out that the deal promised to cut deficits by more than $2 trillion over 10 years.
Opponents aren't 'heavyweights'
Democrats in the race say Corker has neglected certain social and economic issues.
Larry Crim, a Nashville Democrat and chief executive of the mental-health nonprofit Christian Counseling Centers of America, said Corker hasn't focused enough on education and road funding.
Crim said he would push to increase funding for Pell Grants and other federal higher-education programs. He also thinks Congress should fund a major federal highway project that would put construction workers back on the job and fix dilapidated roads.
"We wouldn't have an unemployment problem if we did some of the things that we're proposing," Crim said.
Overall, best known for her role as Laverne on the TV series "Empty Nest," said she would promote stricter environmental regulation -- particularly for what she calls the "murderous" nuclear industry in Tennessee -- and more comprehensive welfare programs for the poor.
She slammed Corker for supporting a measure that would allow employers to decline coverage of birth control and other health services that conflict with their religious beliefs.
Crim has challenged Overall's emphasis on such subjects, arguing that Tennesseans' priorities "aren't on social issues as much as economic issues and education."
Overall admitted her "progressive" beliefs aren't in line with those of many Tennessee voters.
"If I can't win -- which is a long shot, I would say -- at least I can deliver my message," she said.
Political experts agree it's unlikely Overall or any other challenger will topple Corker, who had more than $8 million in the bank at the end of March. Five of his challengers had a combined $22,343. The other 11 reported no fundraising activity, according to the Federal Election Commission.
In 2006, Corker and his Democratic opponent, Harold Ford, were neck-and-neck until the end of the race. In 2010, as a surge of conservative anger swept the nation, pundits believed a tea party-backed challenger might unseat Corker. Last year, "National Journal" ranked Corker among the 11 most vulnerable senators.
But the prospect of a tough re-election bid has evaporated, experts say.
"No one running against him has a (political) background -- they're not heavyweights," said Steve Livingston, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. "I just don't see any of them on their own generating the momentum to get the money and profile necessary to mount a credible campaign."
Livingston said Democrats in Tennessee have been "gutted" since 1994. On the other side, he said, the tea party hasn't gained enough traction in the state to compete with the powerful GOP establishment.
Plus, he said, Corker's star is on the rise in Congress.
Corker is in line to assume the top GOP position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he says he wants to hash out criteria for when the military should intervene in foreign conflicts. And he may move up on the banking panel.
His prolific fundraising could help him advance up the ranks of congressional leadership or run for higher office someday.
For now, Corker is mum on his plans for the future.
"I don't think (voters) have ever sensed that there's political calculation behind my actions," he said. "I've just never been the kind of person to look beyond what's happening at present."
Contact Elizabeth Bewley at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @ebewley.