Trump Visit Spotlights Competitive Tennessee Senate Race
While Democrats face an uphill climb defending seats held by a handful of incumbent senators in states Donald Trump won overwhelmingly, they are hoping to flip the script in Tennessee.
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen appears to be waging a strong campaign against Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Bob Corker. In a sign of how competitive the contest has become, President Trump traveled to Nashville on Tuesday to host a fundraiser for the congresswoman and rally supporters who Republicans hope will turn out down the ballot in November.
"We need Marsha in the Senate to continue the amazing progress and work we've done in the last year and a half," Trump told the crowd. "Marsha's very liberal Democrat opponent, Phil Bredesen -- who is he? He is an absolute and total tool of Chuck Schumer, and of course, the MS-13 lover Nancy Pelosi."
Republicans are keeping Democrats on their toes in North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Montana and Missouri, all of which the president carried by high double digits in 2016 and where he remains popular. The Senate landscape thus provides ample pickup opportunities for a GOP aiming to expand its slim majority in the upper chamber, in stark contrast to a House map that puts many blue state Republican incumbents in peril. Democrats see opportunities to neutralize any Senate losses by picking off Republican seats in presidential battlegrounds like Arizona and Nevada.
But flipping Tennessee, a state Trump won by 26 points, could be more consequential to their fortunes. And it presents Democrats with the rare opportunity in a Senate race to run as the Washington outsider.
A few polls so far show a close race, with Bredesen leading Blackburn in the RealClearPolitics average by five percentage points. A Vanderbilt University poll earlier this month found that 67 percent of respondents approved of Bredesen while 49 percent approved of Blackburn. Bredesen leads his opponent in approval among independents, 69 percent to 44 percent. And he demonstrated some crossover appeal, receiving a 52 percent favorability rating among Republicans while Blackburn received just 23 percent favorability from Democrats.
“Her challenge is clearly going to be making sure our base sticks together,” says Josh Thomas, a Memphis-based Republican strategist. “It will be all hands on deck.”
Strategists in the state say Trump will be effective in that regard. At the Nashville rally, Blackburn stressed that "Tennessee needs a senator who is going to support President Donald Trump."
“Trump is huge asset in Tennessee,” says Thomas, noting that the president won all but three of the state’s 95 counties. Voters there “not only like him but they embrace his policies. To the extent that the midterms tend to be reflective of the incumbent president, that’s great news for Republicans in Tennessee.”
Blackburn has been running as a Trump ally from the start. In launching her campaign last October, the eight-term lawmaker highlighted her tendency to be “politically incorrect,” said Republicans in the Senate “act like Democrats, or worse,” and pledged to fight alongside Trump “every step of the way to build that wall."
Blackburn has carved out an outsized profile on Capitol Hill and beyond as a regular pundit on cable news programs. And she has outraised Bredesen, who loaned his campaign $1 million of his own money. (Bredesen is a former health care executive.) Blackburn has raised $5 million compared to her opponent’s $3.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And while Bredesen has a proven ability to win statewide, his re-election as governor in 2006 was the last time a Democrat has done so. Tennessee's conservative shift was crystalized after hometown Democratic Sen. Al Gore lost the presidential contest there in 2000, and it has been trending even redder since Bredesen left office. When Trump won the state in 2016, he outperformed Mitt Romney by six points and John McCain by 11. Of the 11 members of the congressional delegation from Tennessee, only two are Democrats. And while Corker won narrowly in his first election to the Senate in 2006, a banner year for Democrats, he was easily re-elected in 2012.
"The question is, are there enough Democratic votes left to win a statewide race and is there a political center left in Tennessee?" says Kent Syler, who managed former Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon's campaigns and served as his chief of staff for over two decades.
Bredesen's path to victory entails high Democratic turnout while winning independents and picking off moderate Republican voters, Syler says. "He’s not attacking Donald Trump, because he understands he’s got all the anti-Trump vote, and he is going to have to get some pro-Trump vote while trying to avoid being linked to the [Democratic] national brand."
Such a strategy is on display in his ads. In his first television spot, Bredesen touted his bipartisan approach as governor. "Right now, we need a dose of that in the Senate — less partisan squabbling, more solutions," he says. "I'm not running against Donald Trump," he says in another spot. "There’s a lot of things I don’t personally like about Donald Trump, but he’s the president of the United States, and if he has an idea and is pushing some things that I think are good for the people of Tennessee, I’m going to be for it."
Republicans are tying Bredesen to the national Democratic Party while undercutting his record as governor. In an opposition research file on him circulated ahead Trump's visit to Nashville, Republicans highlighted an increased state unemployment rate when the Democrat left office, his support for some gun control measures, and for supporting the issuance of driver certificates to undocumented immigrants (a program his administration later ended).
While Republicans in the state have mostly coalesced around Blackburn, Bredesen's credentials have been boosted by an unlikely source: Corker himself. "He was a very good [Nashville] mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person," Corker told reporters last month. "And look, I'm not going to campaign against someone who I've been a friend with and worked with, so that's the way it's going to be." Later, in an interview with CNN, Corker refused to say Blackburn's name: “I'm supporting the [GOP] nominee. I have worked with the nominee for some time. And I don't know what else to say."
The remarks irked national and state Republicans, prompting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to admonish Corker, according to the Washington Post. (At Tuesday’s rally, Corker was booed when the president mentioned him.) After the comments, Trump quickly endorsed Blackburn. Corker has said he donated to her campaign and would support her. Still, his comments appeared to fuel Blackburn supporters in the state, and raised questions about Corker's currency among Republican base voters.
Corker’s comments represent the kind of sentiment Bredesen will need to garner from moderate Republicans and independents in the state. "That’s what this race is likely to turn on: whether Tennesseans want a moderate or a partisan," says Ken Blake, director of the poll at Middle Tennessee State University. "The question is, how are the moderate Republicans going to go?" A MTSU survey in early April found Bredesen leading Blackburn, 45 percent to 35 percent. But 17 percent of respondents said they weren't sure who they would vote for in November.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said Bredesen supported issuing driver licenses to undocumented immigrants. In fact, his administration briefly supported issuing driver certificates, a downgrade from the previous administration's issuance of licenses to undocumented immigrants.