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Republicans Really Could Lose That Tennessee Senate Seat

The Senate race in Tennessee between former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Rep. Marsha Blackburn has flown largely under the radar this year. It’s no wonder, given all the hype about turning Texas blue and how Democratic senators in red states might be imperiled by their Kavanaugh confirmation votes. But Tennessee could be one of the pivotal contests come November.

FiveThirtyEight’s model is slightly split on the race. The polls-only version says the race is a toss-up, but when you factor in the fundamentals — including fundraising and the political climate of the state — the race leans toward Blackburn. My boss, Nate Silver, wrote about this funny little split from the model’s vantage and included lots of juicy historical data. (Is there any other kind??)

But day to day, there’s also a visible strategic difference between the two campaigns. Bredesen, an avowed centrist in the old Southern Democrat tradition, is trying to keep things local and low key — no big-name endorsements, please, unless they’re from Republicans. (Tennessee’s outgoing Republican Sen. Bob Corker all but endorsed Bredesen: “I think he’s got real appeal — I don’t think it, I know it.”) Blackburn, meanwhile, is running a very 2018 game, hoping her fealty to the Trump agenda will earn her votes in a state that the president won with nearly 61 percent of the vote. While the race might be undercovered nationally, it’s one of the most important for partisans, holding outsized power to tip the balance of the Senate. So, best for us to get to know the two principals.

It’s no secret that Bredesen is at something of a disadvantage. Al Gore was the last Democrat to be elected to the senate in Tennessee, and that was in 1990, long before he got into beards and climate change. The last time a Democrat won the presidential vote in Tennessee was in 1996; Gore even lost his home state when he ran for president in 2000. Tennessee is a distinctly red state.

But Bredesen was also a popular politician; when he left Tennessee’s governor’s mansion in 2011, one survey found he had a 63 percent favorability rating. Bredesen served as mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999 and was elected governor in 2002, beating out his Republican opponent by under 2 points. He was reelected in 2006, walloping his GOP challenger by 39 points while that same year, Sen. Bob Corker won his race by 3 points.

His centrism and willingness to criticize Democrats was part of his appeal as governor. One of the major moments in Bredesen’s gubernatorial career came in 2005 when the former health-care executive enacted significant cuts to TennCare, the state’s Medicaid equivalent, to deal with a budget deficit. Coverage was eliminated for around 250,000 people. In 2009, he raised concerns about the Medicaid expansion being negotiated in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, calling it “the mother of all unfunded mandates,” though he later supported the law. In this year’s campaign, Bredesen has trumpeted his “saving” of TennCare and said of the Democrats’ signature health-care law, “I was not a fan of the Affordable Care Act, but when it passed, I said, ‘it’s the law of the land, let’s make it work.’ I think there’s some pretty straightforward things to do to get it stabilized.”

In general, Bredesen’s 2018 campaign aesthetic is “don’t mention I’m a Democrat too much.” He ran an ad that was a compilation of all the nice things that Tennessee Republicans have said about him, and he’s made sure to get it on the record that he would vote against Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in any Democratic caucus elections. Bredesen has made an ad that shows him shooting skeet and touting the fact that as governor, he had an A rating from the National Rifle Association (he doesn’t mention that now he has a D grade) and said he would turn down campaign help from Hillary Clinton. The guy wants no part of the #resistance label.

Blackburn, on the other hand, is doing what she can to bring the Senate race onto national terms. A polished politician who was elected to Congress in 2002, Blackburn has found a home in the president’s wing of the Republican Party. She gave a speech endorsing Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention, saying of Trump’s nomination, “let’s get ’er done,” a slightly incongruous invocation of Larry the Cable Guy. She’s also voted with Trump 92 percent of the time and her Senate bid received an early endorsement from the PAC of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Blackburn’s conservatism is the kind that was readily adaptable to the Trump era. She embraced the tea party movement during the Obama presidency, and in her Senate announcement video in 2017 she called herself “a hard-core, card-carrying Tennessee conservative. I’m politically incorrect and proud of it.” It’s a good ad, with Blackburn winningly talking to the camera as she pre-emptively smears herself: “I know the left calls me a ‘wing nut’ or a ‘knuckle-dragging conservative’ and you know what? I say, ‘OK, bring it on.’”

Blackburn’s ease with the current partisan political paradigm has been apparent, and given her state’s red slant, it’s also an intuitive strategy. She has tried to tie Bredesen to a state bill granting driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally, and during a recent debate, she consistently linked the former governor to Minority Leader Schumer. Blackburn continues to run against Obamacare.

Trump, for his part, is all-in on Blackburn, giving her a full-throated endorsement and rallying for her in Tennessee appearances. The president, it should be noted, despises Corker, the outgoing Republican senator, and said that he “couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Tennessee.”

So what wins in Tennessee: partisanship or appeals for across-the-aisle cooperation? Recent polling seems to indicate that Bredesen is better liked than Blackburn, with 52 percent of registered voters viewing him favorably and only 41 percent saying they felt the same way about Blackburn. But the last month of the campaign seems primed for highly divisive national issues to intrude in local races, potentially throwing into turmoil contests that have stayed below the tree line. Partisanship is a powerful force, one that can’t be discounted as voters’ minds turn in earnest to the race to November. If that’s the case, Bredesen may well feel the pain of running an old-school strategy in the cutthroat political landscape of 2018.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.