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Sen. Lamar Alexander announces he won't seek another term in 2020

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., won't run for reelection. His decision means for the second time in two years, Tennessee will have an open U.S. Senate race. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced Monday that he would not seek reelection in 2020, a move likely to bring a close to a long political career characterized by his ability to seek consensus and work with politicians from both parties.

Alexander, 78, a former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary who twice ran for president, had been weighing his political future for months, promising to announce a decision by the end of the year.

"The people of Tennessee have been very generous, electing me to serve more combined years as Governor and Senator than anyone else from our state," Alexander said in a statement. "I am deeply grateful, but now it is time for someone else to have that privilege."

Alexander has cultivated a reputation for being a traditional Republican senator, voting with President Trump much of the time but willing to work with Democrats.

A close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Alexander currently serves as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He was at the center of the unsuccessful 2017 push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Alexander's decision means that for the second time in two years, Tennessee will have an open U.S. Senate race.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a Trump critic, announced last year that he would retire at the end of this year. Corker's successor will be Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative and staunch ally of President Donald Trump.

In a statement Monday, Corker called Alexander "one of the finest statesmen our state has ever seen."

Alexander drew Republican primary challengers the last time he ran, including Joe Carr, a tea party insurgent who ran to his right. Alexander won that contest comfortably.

A poll released this month found Alexander remains popular in his home state. Sixty-five percent of Republican primary voters in Tennessee had a favorable view of Alexander, while 22 percent had a negative view, according to the poll by North Star Opinion Research.

An Alexander aide said Monday that the senator decided as far back as August not to seek reelection but waited until Monday to make the announcement to ensure he still felt it was the right call. The aide requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Nationally, Republicans face a more difficult Senate map in 2020 than they did this year, when Democrats had to defend 10 seats in states Trump won. Republicans are defending 22 seats in 2018, compared to just 12 for Democrats. Alexander's decision means Republicans will have to find a new candidate in a state where Trump won by a wide margin in 2016 and remains popular.

Democrats fielded former governor Phil Bredesen in this year's Senate race, a moderate who was seen as their best chance of winning statewide in years. But after a promising start to his campaign, Bredesen proved to be no match for Blackburn, who aligned herself closely with Trump in the campaign.

In a statement Monday, Blackburn called Alexander "an effective advocate for Tennesseans" and said his "leadership is a model to be emulated."

After serving two terms as governor and for three years as president of the University of Tennessee, Alexander was U.S. education secretary from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

Alexander unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996 and again in 2000. He won election to the Senate in 2002.

Alexander was the principal author of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act.

During a floor speech last year after Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, Alexander notably told colleagues that it was time to change course and work with Democrats to reform the law.

Alexander warned that letting Obama's signature law collapse under its own weight, as Trump and many conservatives had advocated, would be a mistake.

"I would ask what's conservative about unaffordable premiums?" he said. "What's conservative about creating chaos so millions can't buy health insurance?"

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This article was written by John Wagner, a reporter for The Washington Post. Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.