It may be the Year of the Woman, with a record-breaking number of them running. But not for Republicans.
One of the party’s female stars, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who’s represented a conservative district west of Nashville since 2002, is locked in an unexpectedly tight race for the Senate in Tennessee. A Trump clone in a state where more than 60 percent of voters went with Trump, she should have put the race away long ago.
Instead, the president’s snide disdain for women is threatening to erase the Trump bump. A recent Washington Post poll showed that once reliably Republican-voting white, college-educated women in battleground districts now prefer Democrats by nearly 30 points. That can only grow with Trump’s “horseface” comment about Stormy Daniels, following on his high-pitched voice mocking imitation of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And Trump says he’s not a baby. The president believes winning means no one cares how he treated Ford. We’ll see.
Blackburn—a self-proclaimed knuckle-dragging, pistol-packing wing-nut who’s been a Trump cheerleader since his birther days and who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize this year—is in a statistical dead heat in the latest Reuters poll against 74-year-old former two-term governor Phil Bredesen, who came out of semi-retirement when Sen. Bob Corker, who effectively had the seat for life, decided to retire.
Blackburn holds all the positions you would expect of someone with a 100-percent rating from the American Conservative Union, with some extras like limiting the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to stop obvious illegal shipments of opioids and opposing not just abortion but stem-cell research. She’s been cited for financial irregularities, funneling $370,000 to family members for campaign work and other FEC issues. She’s since hired a compliance officer. She could be running against “crying” Sen. Chuck Schumer or Hillary Clinton she mentions them so often.
For his part, Bredesen is a Corker clone, or the other way around—the kind of mild-mannered, fiscally responsible moderate politician that Tennessee has traditionally sent to Washington. A successful businessman who led a renaissance in Nashville as a two-term mayor, Bredesen went on to be elected governor in 2002. He made unpopular cuts but resolved a fiscal crisis to win a second term in 2006 with 69 percent of the vote, sweeping all 95 counties. The mayor of Knoxville joked that the Democrat was the best Republican governor Tennessee ever had.
In normal times, Bredesen might easily win. In Trump times, Blackburn might have been expected do the same. But neither has broken away, although one outlier poll a few weeks ago showed Blackburn ahead by double digits. That pop might have been the result of her early support of Brett Kavanaugh, whom Tennesseans favored, and Bredesen’s last-minute decision to support him, which reportedly lost him some female volunteers.
The pop is over. Bredesen’s heresy on Kavanaugh may have been balanced out by Tennessee’s favorite daughter Taylor Swift’s first foray into politics earlier this month—she said that Blackburn “terrifies” her. In just more than 24 hours after the singer’s political coming-out post, Vote.org saw 105,000 new registrants. In the whole month before, there had been 190,000 registrations.
The race is close in part because Blackburn, the Tea Partier, has had a hard time expanding her appeal to the still vibrant Howard Baker wing of the party. Corker has refused to campaign against Bredesen. After Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaked that Corker should get with the program, Corker said he would write a check and vote for Blackburn but still not say anything negative about him.
Bredesen may prove to be a relic of a pre-Trump, bipartisan era but Corker’s admiration for Bredesen spread to major Republican donors, like Colleen Conway-Welch and Tom Cigarran, who committed their own heresy by holding fundraisers for a Democrat. Cigarran told the Washington Examiner that Bredesen is somebody “who is not partisan who gets things done. That appeals to me and to many other Republicans,” Bredesen has raised more money than Blackburn, including $2 million more in the last reporting period.
In their final debate, both candidates performed true to character; Blackburn the firebrand who is used to talking more than doing, the curse of all House members, on the attack; Bredesen the nearly boring, can-doer who’s changed the skyline of Nashville and the map of Tennessee but doesn’t know how to toss back a grenade. What would each do if the other won? Bredesen said all Tennesseans should “gather around and support her so she can be the best senator she can be.” His mother raised him well. Blackburn extended no such olive branch, spewing out a list of scary Democratic senators like Dianne Feinstein he’d be aiding and abetting in Washington if he won.
This race will show whether Trump is a red tide that can lift all red-state boats, including leaky ones, or whether there is a blue wave tall enough that a pragmatic accomplished Democrat can ride to victory in a red state. It will be a clue to how 2020 will play out.
At his rally for Blackburn, in addition to calling MS-13 “animals,” Trump said that a vote for Blackburn is a vote for him. To the AP reporter who asked if he would take blame, as his predecessors have, should his party lose in the midterms, he said no.
We expected nothing more, although Blackburn does. If she wins, it’s all about Trump. If she doesn’t, it’s all about her. To handle that, she needs a bigger boat.