If U.S. Sen Bob Corker joins the cabinet of President-elect Donald Trump, Gov. Bill Haslam would appoint a replacement to fill the U.S. Senate seat he would leave behind.
Although it's unclear when Trump may start to announce any cabinet picks, any decision would have significant political ramifications for Tennessee. Corker said Wednesday he has had no discussions with Trump’s team about a cabinet post in the new administration and has no reason to believe he’s being considered for a post.
“My name has been mentioned in the media, but I’ve had no conversations with them (about a position),” he said. “It’s way too soon for that kind of thing.”
The Chattanooga Republican said he spoke today with Trump and with his running mate, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and offered his congratulations on their victory last night.
Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dodged when asked if he’d accept a cabinet position should one be offered.
“Responding to conjecture is not good for your health,” he said. “These are decisions that others are making, and I relish my role right now as (foreign relations) chairman. They have a monumental task. My guess is they will seek input from a lot of people. I look forward to that.”
Haslam told reporters Wednesday that Corker would be a great addition to the cabinet, but he hasn’t started to seriously consider who he may appoint in the event Corker’s seat is vacated.
“The country would be well-served to have Sen. Corker in a larger, in a role, a nationwide role. Number two, I haven’t started down that path, because there’s a lot of ifs in there. Number three, just as a funny aside, I have started getting a lot of calls and emails about the decision," Haslam said, laughing.
Corker has yet to confirm after Trump’s victory if he is still interested in a cabinet position, but in the past he told The Tennessean he may be interested in becoming U.S. Secretary of State or U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
“That's not the kind of thing you lobby for certainly. That’s somebody else’s decision,” Corker told The Tennessean in July at the Republican National Convention.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, gave Corker a strong endorsement to serve as either U.S. Secretary of State or U.S. Secretary of Treasury during a media availability Wednesday in Nashville.
“He would be an excellent Cabinet member,” Alexander said. “Bob Corker would be a good secretary of state. He’d be a good secretary of the treasury. He has a grasp of both the financial issues and a grasp of the world.
“When senators think about national security and how to keep us safe in the world, we usually turn to Bob Corker first and listen to him. So, I would hate to lose him as a colleague in the senate, but he’d be an excellent choice by President-elect Trump. And I think they have a good relationship.”
Tennessee state law is very clear: voters chose a replacement at the next November election following the creation of the vacancy. That would be 2018, when Corker’s seat is up. In the meantime, it would fall to the governor to temporarily fill the seat.
The process of filling a U.S. Senate seat is the same in 35 other states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Although a handful of states have some restrictions on the appointment – like the pick must be of the same political party as the departed senator – Tennessee law allows Haslam to pick anyone he wants.
In theory, there are two types of choices: a placeholder, or someone who plans to remain in the seat and campaign for re-election.
When Al Gore was elected vice president, then-Gov. Ned McWherter chose the placeholder route. In the days before Gore officially resigned his Senate seat, McWherter announced he would appoint his deputy, Harlan Matthews, as a “caretaker.” Two years later, at the end of the term to which Gore was originally elected, Fred Thompson won the election.
Haslam said he would lean more toward appointing a caretaker, but stressed that the entire conversation is still hypothetical at this point.
There was no guarantee Corker would run for re-election, but he would be the favorite if he chose to stay in the Senate. However, leaving the seat to join the Trump administration could set off a chain reaction that may have drastic political implications.
There’s a chance anyone who would be appointed would have also been interested in running for governor in 2018. That would shake up a GOP gubernatorial primary expected to be the most expensive in state history.
Haslam could also appoint himself, but he essentially ruled that out Wednesday.
“I don’t think I would do it myself,” Haslam said.
Although that’s never happened in Tennessee, there was at least one governor who orchestrated an effort to fill an empty seat. In 1905, Gov. James B. Frazier quickly organized an effort to ensure the state legislature would elect him to fill a U.S. Senate seat vacated by William Bate, who had died.
If Haslam did appoint himself and wanted to stay in the Senate, history suggests he'd face an uphill battle. According to a 2009 analysis by NPR, only nine governors have been appointed to the U.S. Senate immediately after a vacancy. Of those only one, then-Gov. Happy Chandler of Kentucky in 1939, won the following election to keep his Senate seat.