HUNTINGDON, Tennessee—For Marsha Blackburn, the pitch is simple: Send me to the Senate, or Chuck Schumer becomes majority leader.
“Chuck Schumer said if it took $50 million to win this seat, they’d spend it,” Blackburn told a crowd at a rally here in rural western Tennessee. “His path to being majority leader runs straight up through the middle of Tennessee. … I do not think Tennessee is going to be the state to hand the U.S. Senate over the Democrats.”
In the closing days of the toughest election of her career, Blackburn appears to have made the calculation that her best asset is the “R” next to her name as she finds herself in a closer-than-expected race for U.S. Senate against former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.
It shouldn’t be that tough of a sell in a state where Blackburn has several built-in advantages. After all, President Donald Trump won the state by 26 points in 2016, and the eight-term House Republican, a conservative darling and Trump loyalist, never won less than 66 percent of the vote in her deep-red western Tennessee district.
The only problem is her opponent is not Schumer. He’s a Democrat so moderate that some joke he was the “best Republican governor” the Volunteer State ever had. Bredesen, a self-described fiscal conservative, is actively courting disaffected Republicans and business-minded conservatives, many of whom are prepared to vote Democratic for the first time in their lives on Nov. 6. That phenomenon is not new for Bredesen, who in two statewide elections convinced thousands of Republicans to vote for him. In his 2006 re-election bid, Bredesen swept all 95 counties.
“What’s keeping Blackburn in the race is the notion that the Senate must stay Republican. That’s one of her best arguments,” Victor Ashe, a Republican who served as mayor of Knoxville for 16 years and as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Poland for five years, told The Daily Beast. “It’s just, she has an ‘R’ after her name so therefore it’s essential she be elected.”
Bredesen is quick to remind voters that as governor, he shrank the state’s ballooning budget deficit and made steep cuts to TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program which services one in five Tennesseans, in order to give the program greater long-term stability.
And with some Republicans, that pitch is working.
“I don’t think [Blackburn] would reach across the aisle for ice cream,” Madge Cleveland, a Knoxville-based longtime Republican who has worked on GOP campaigns since she was 12, said in an interview. “[Bredesen] acts more like a moderate Republican than most Republicans do. He was a great governor.”
Cleveland, who worked on Republican political campaigns all her life, has donated to Bredesen’s campaign. She joins other Republicans like John Finch, a business conservative who even appeared in a Bredesen campaign ad. Republicans supporting Bredesen say that Blackburn’s hardline conservative views, in addition to her Trumpian political style, are major turn-offs among conservatives who want the GOP to return to its pre-Trump roots.
“Marsha Blackburn’s campaign this time is just the bottom of the barrel. She’s spent millions of dollars—nothing positive, just attack ads. It just disgusts me. And that’s a symptom of where our national political situation has gotten to,” William Barker, the former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and a lifelong Republican, told The Daily Beast. Barker, who lives outside Chattanooga, voted for Bredesen on the first day of the early voting period here and has contributed to his campaign.
Bredesen, likely the only person with a “D” next to his name who has a chance to win statewide, joked that Democrats and left-leaning groups were so desperate for a win in the state that all he had to do was to show up in order to get the nomination.
“As I’ve gone around doing things like fundraising, I thought I was going to have to go out convincing people of the brilliance of my views,” Bredesen told The Daily Beast in an interview after rallying voters in Knoxville. “But for these Democratic groups, the check-list is kind of just: is he a Democrat, is he breathing, might he win the election? OK, check those boxes.”
Voters here aren’t accustomed to having an outsized role in the national political landscape. Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1990, but this year, the state has unexpectedly become a key battleground for control of the Senate. That means Tennesseans have an even bigger responsibility. Not only are they choosing their own senator, but that choice could determine which party controls the upper chamber, especially if Democrats can hold court in other red states and flip GOP-held seats in Nevada and Arizona.
“The most potent negative for me is that I’m a Democrat,” Bredesen acknowledged. “And so it’s probably no surprise that my opponent’s campaign, who knows the same thing, has basically run a campaign trying to say: he’s a Democrat, he’s a Democrat, he’s a Democrat.”
That’s exactly what they’ve done.
During campaign events on Thursday, Blackburn and her surrogates, including Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN) and other local GOP elected officials, repeatedly reminded any teetering Republicans that something greater than Tennessee was at stake.
“It all comes down to Phil Bredesen’s first vote, which will be to empower Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Bernie Sanders as chairman of the budget committee,” Scott Golden, the chairman of the Tennessee Republican party, told The Daily Beast after Blackburn’s rally here. “All of those things are what Republicans are against. … [Blackburn] will be a reliable vote for everything from tax cuts to judges, things Republicans care about.”
Added Kustoff: “In the House of Representatives and the Senate, if Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer want to put their thumbs down and say, ‘you can’t vote for something’—then that’s the way it is. … Being governor of Tennessee is a whole heck of a lot different from being a Democratic senator.”
Bredesen’s message, however, is more nuanced and, at times, risks alienating Democrats in favor of attracting votes from the other side that he might never get.
He caused a stir among some Democrats by backing Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and he has also praised Trump at rallies and in television advertisements, often centering on the president’s negotiating style. Still, it’s the right move, his campaign believes, because Bredesen needs at least 15 percent of the Republican vote in order to defeat Blackburn.
Blackburn, meanwhile, is following Trump’s playbook. In addition to tying Bredesen to national Democrats like Schumer, she is touting her early backing of Kavanaugh—as opposed to Bredesen’s endorsement just days before the final vote—and warning of an “illegal alien mob,” referring to the caravan of migrants that is making its way to the U.S. from Central America.
After Bredesen said the caravan was “not a threat,” Blackburn charged that Bredesen “would like to roll out the welcome mat for them, hand them a state-issued, taxpayer funded driving certificates, and get them to work for his campaign.”
Blackburn’s campaign denied multiple requests for an interview. If she wins, her politicking style would be out of step among the Tennessee Republican senators elected in recent decades—including Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, and Howard Baker—who gained reputations for reaching across the aisle to strike legislative deals with Democrats, a rare feat these days. Since day one, Blackburn’s central pitch to voters is that she will boost Trump’s agenda on Capitol Hill, particularly when it comes to illegal immigration and building a border wall.
But even in such a Trump-friendly state, that message by itself can’t carry her over the finish line. And while the campaign believes “Kavanaugh bump” was real, polls show that thousands of voters remain undecided.
Bredesen’s attempts to close that gap by appealing to conservative tendencies are likely to win him a significant chunk of self-described Republicans. But it could come at a cost.
After Bredesen announced his support for Kavanaugh, a handful of volunteers left his campaign, and Priorities USA Action—a major Democratic super PAC—said it wouldn’t be spending money on the race.
Bredesen doesn’t much care. He’s used to being harangued by progressives, and he, like Blackburn and her allies, is appealing to voters left and right by framing the Tennessee contest as a proxy for which party will control the Senate come January.
“I’ve always been a centrist, and it’s always been an issue for me with the left wing of the party. And it’s not that large in Tennessee,” Bredesen said. “It’s not California in that regard. I think right now, what’s helping me is that people are hungry for a victory.”