By Michael Cass, The Tennessean
When President Barack Obama comes to Tennessee today to celebrate a business success story, don't expect the state's top officials to give him a big, bipartisan hug.
Each of the Volunteer State's top three statewide elected officials is a Republican, and each is walking a political tightrope as the Democratic president prepares to head to the Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga. But none of them will appear with him.
Gov. Bill Haslam needs the Obama administration's help with a proposal to buy private insurance for poor Tennesseans who don't qualify for TennCare, the state's expanded version of Medicaid. But he will have to sell that plan to state Republicans who don't care for Obama all that much, a job that will require additional finesse. Beyond that, he might not want to get too close to the president if he's nurturing any national ambitions of his own a year away from seeking a second term as governor.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former governor, has a reputation for bipartisanship but is trying to bat away attacks from his right flank as he, too, runs for re-election in a year.
Tennessee's other senator, the recently re-elected Bob Corker, has the least to lose right now and, as a former Chattanooga mayor, the most obvious connection to the Amazon event. But even though he played golf with Obama earlier this year, Corker also might have decided to stay away for political reasons.
Haslam's public schedule, released two days after the White House announced the Chattanooga trip last week, shows him making five appearances in other parts of Tennessee today.
"The governor won't be there," spokesman Dave Smith said in an email, adding that Haslam learned of the president's trip on Wednesday. "He had a full day planned in the Upper Cumberland region (today), and he plans on keeping those appointments."
Haslam does not have any other public events scheduled in the state for the rest of the week.
An Alexander newsrelease said the senator is scheduled to co-host "a roundtable focused on expanding school choice for parents" today in Washington. That event also will feature U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican and tea party favorite with whom Alexander clearly doesn't mind being seen these days. He co-hosted a similar event with Paul on Monday in Nashville.
Alexander criticized Obama in a written statement.
"First, I'd like to hear the president explain to Tennessee employers how they're going to add new jobs and at the same time pay all the additional costs imposed by the president's health-care law. And second, I hope he'll reassure Tennesseans that his new labor secretary and National Labor Relations Board appointees won't do anything to undermine our right-to-work law, which has helped Tennessee attract more than 100,000 auto jobs over the past 30 years."
A Corker spokeswoman said the senator, who was Chattanooga's mayor from 2001 to 2005, will be in Washington, too.
"It's the last week of this work session and a very busy day," Laura Herzog wrote. "Sen. Corker has a banking committee hearing, a foreign relations business meeting, and nominations hearings and votes are possible."
In a statement with a softer edge than Alexander's, Corker said: "Chattanooga is one of those great cities in the world, so it's easy to see why any president would want to visit. In addition to our outstanding Amazon facility, I hope the president's trip will also highlight other things that make Chattanooga a great place to live and work: a vibrant downtown and riverfront, the fastest Internet connection in the U.S., and the world's first and only LEED Platinum certified car factory - VW Chattanooga - which has created more than 5,000 jobs in the region."
Corker played golf with Obama at Andrews Air Force Base in May. He also went to dinner with the president and 11 other Republican senators in March, The Washington Post reported.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Republican who represents Chattanooga in the House of Representatives, doesn't plan on attending the Amazon event, either. He put out a statement last week lambasting the president's policies.
'Great things happening'
While the Tennessee Republican Party's senior statesmen won't be in the Scenic City today, the state party's anti-Obama message will. The party said it has bought time on Chattanooga broadcast and cable TV stations to air an advertisement "about the great things happening here in Tennessee because of Republican principles in action."
"We hope the president uses this opportunity to see what real leadership looks like and takes those lessons back to Washington," Chairman Chris Devaney, who planned to be in Chattanooga on Monday and today, said in a news release.
In an email, party spokesman Brent Leatherwood called the TV ad purchase "significant" for a non-election year and said the party also is "coupling the television ad buy with a heavy online buy - utilizing social media outlets, Google Ads, etc. - to appropriately welcome the president to Chattanooga." He did not provide specific amounts.
Meanwhile, Obama will get some Democratic support from Nashville. Haley Davidson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, confirmed that Cooper would travel to Chattanooga for the Amazon event. Cooper and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis are the only Democrats in the state's 11-member congressional delegation.
Amazon said Monday it plans to add 7,000 jobs nationwide, including an undisclosed number at Murfreesboro and Chattanooga warehouses. The White House said Obama would go to Chattanooga to give "the first in a series of policy speeches on his better bargain for the middle class."
"Tuesday's speech will focus on manufacturing and high-wage jobs for durable economic growth, and the president will discuss proposals he has laid out to jump-start private sector job growth and make America more competitive, and will also talk about new ideas to create American jobs," the White House said.