NASHVILLE — U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2020, touching off a storm of compliments and well-wishes from his GOP colleagues in state and federal government.
Alexander, 78, called President Donald Trump on Sunday to inform the president of his decision to not seek re-election. He said Monday that the decision was made during a fishing trip in August, but he kept it a secret for four months.
Polls show that Alexander would have been heavily favored to win re-election in 2020. However, he said he felt it was time to hand the baton to someone else.
Alexander, a lifelong politician, has represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate since 2003, when he successfully sought election to replace Fred Thompson.
Before his election to the Senate, Alexander — a native of Maryville — was a governor and a Presidential cabinet member.
Alexander was one of many lawmakers heavily influenced by Scott County’s Howard H. Baker Jr. In 1967, after graduating from law school, Alexander worked as a legislative assistant for Baker. It was during that time that he met his wife — Leslee Buhler — at a staffer softball game, and briefly roomed with future U.S. Senator Trent Lott.
After running unsuccessfully for governor in 1974, Alexander was later elected as Tennessee’s 45th governor, a position he held from 1979 to 1987. Later, he was Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.
Alexander’s exit from the Senate will threaten to further polarize the upper chamber. Sometimes attacked by his party’s more conservative wing as being too moderate, Alexander has a reputation as a lawmaker who can reach across the aisle and achieve compromise with Democrats. In fact, he’s close allies with both Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the top Republican and top Democrat in the Senate.
Despite his reputation as a moderate, Alexander was able to resist the criticism of Trump that made his Republican colleague, Bob Corker, a target of the president’s scorn. Corker will exit the Senate in January after choosing not to seek re-election this year. He is being succeeded by Republican Marsha Blackburn, who defeated former Governor Phil Bredesen last month.
In fact, Alexander told Politico on Monday that before he could even tell Trump the reason for his call in their Sunday conversation, Trump asked him to serve in the Senate for “another 20 years.”
Alexander rose to political prominence in 1978, when he won over voters by walking from Mountain City to Memphis — the length of the state, covering 1,022 miles — wearing a red and black flannel shirt.
Alexander had been defeated by Democrat Ray Blanton four years earlier, after Blanton successfully tethered Alexander to the still-recent Watergate scandal. Although Alexander did not have a role in Watergate, he worked briefly for Bryce Harlow, President Richard Nixon’s executive assistant.
By the time the next election rolled around, four years later, it was Blanton who was embroiled in scandal — so much so that he opted not to seek re-election. Alexander, who had managed the campaign of Winfield Dunn — Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years — in 1970, won the GOP nomination with 86 percent of the vote, then defeated Knoxville banker Jake Butcher in the general election.
Alexander was sworn into office on January 17, 1979 — three days earlier than normal. His early inauguration came at the behest of political leaders of both parties, including Democrats John S. Wilder and Ned McWherter, to prevent Blanton from issuing additional pardons. The outgoing governor had come under intense scrutiny for issuing pardons while his administration was already under investigation in a cash-for-clemency scheme. Wilder called Alexander’s early inauguration “impeachment Tennessee-style.”
McWherter would later succeed Alexander as the state’s 46th governor, while Alexander would become president of the University of Tennessee for three years before being confirmed as Bush’s Education Secretary.
Alexander unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president in 1996 and again in 2000. When Thompson announced his retirement in 2002, President George W. Bush — who had defeated Alexander in the primary two years earlier — persuaded Alexander to run for Thompson’s seat. Conservatives opposed his candidacy, but Alexander narrowly edged Ed Bryant in the primary, then defeated Bob Clement in the general election.