By Hastings Wyman –
Last month Democrats became optimistic that a US Senate seat in Tennessee most observers had seen as staying in the Republican column might cross the aisle and provide an unexpected pickup. In mid-September a CNN poll showed the Democratic nominee, moderate former Gov. Phil Bredesen, leading the hard-right Republican standard bearer, US Rep. Marsha Blackburn, by 50% to 45%.
This was after Blackburn, 66, had hammered away at Bredesen, 74, contending that a vote for the Democrat was a vote for “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY), the Senate’s Minority Leader, and his leftwing policies. During their one debate, Blackburn mentioned Schumer’s name twelve times, reported The Tennessee Journal. But folks outside of the nation’s capital don’t give national politics the scrutiny that is the daily fare of political junkies. Most Tennessee voters are probably barely aware of Schumer’s name, much less what he stands for.
All of that changed, however, in the first week of October during the contentious and unseemly battle over the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. That was the week the “race got turned upside down,” says Deb Wooley, former executive with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce. It was also the week that President Trump, who is popular in the state, came to Johnson City, Tennessee to boost Blackburn. He attended a high-end fundraiser for her, then spoke to a larger crowd outside open to the public.
Then after weeks of ducking and weaving, Bredesen announced on Oct. 6, the day the US Senate confirmed Kavanaugh, that if he were in the Senate, he would he would have voted to confirm the embattled judge. Despite Bredesen’s belated stance, the controversy reminded voters that electing a Democrat who might have voted against a conservative Supreme Court nominee “was too high to a price to pay,” opines Wooley, even a “popular pro-business conservative Democratic governor” like Bredesen.
The controversy took its toll on the Democratic nominee. The most recent survey, by CBS News/YouGov taken October 2 through October 5, gave Blackburn 50% to 42% for Bredesen, a significant 8-point lead for Blackburn and a sharp turnaround from several weeks earlier.
“Is it a temporary jump?” asks Wooley, who notes it was only one week before early voting began.
Another factor that favors Blackburn is that the top office on the ballot is the governor’s race in which the GOP’s Bill Lee is a heavy favorite against Democrat Karl Dean.
On the money front, both Blackburn and Bredesen are doing well. While the Federal Election Commission’s financial reports end at July 13, 2018, they show that Bredesen brought in $8,527,000 by that date, with $2,864,000 cash-on-hand. Blackburn brought in almost as much, $8,092,000, with a more generous $7,164,000 on hand.
In addition, several conservative groups are financing TV campaigns on Blackburn’s behalf. These include $2 million from Americans for Prosperity, and the Senate Leadership Fund plans to spend $3 million. The narrator of the GOP’s Senate fund ad says, “If Phil Bredesen wins, Dianne Feinstein picks your judges, Bernie Sanders runs the budget and Chuck Schumer runs everything.” Such a theme didn’t have much punch until the confirmation battle over Judge Kavanaugh.
Democratic partisans are not despondent, however. Chip Forrester, former state Democratic chairman, says that “Bredesen is clearly the most credible candidate Democrats could have nominated.” As for the Kavanaugh controversy, he says Bredesen “had to at some point take a position. At the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal… Last week was good for Trump, but that will fade. Things shift. The last week of the campaign will make the difference.”
Forrester was also pleased by country music star Taylor Swift’s endorsement of Bredesen, also on October 6. “It’s definitely a plus. She articulated her endorsement on the basis of the sexual harassment she had been exposed to. The energy of the Me-Too movement appeals to women across Tennessee.” Swift, who has previously avoided politics, tweeted about Blackburn, “Her voting record appalls and terrifies me.” Nota bene: Country music is to Tennessee what oil is to Texas.
Sums up Forrester, ““I’ve always said it would be an extremely close race… I’m cautiously optimistic that Bredesen will win.”
Another prominent Democrat, Roy Herron, a former Democratic state chairman and a former state senator, says he believes the race will be “very, very close.” He’s not sure the sampling in recent polls reasonably reflects the electorate.
“I thought that Bredesen in the debate… was continuing to earn the support of the undecided and the leaning,” says Herron. Blackburn “was acerbic, appealing to her base.”
Herron says he has breakfast frequently with some longtime Republican friends and they “remember Bredesen and they’re going to vote for him.”
As for Bredesen’s saying he would have voted to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, “It showed how he is bi-partisan,” appealing particularly to undecided voters and some Republicans. Herron adds, “Some Democrats are disappointed, but the contrast between Blackburn and Bredesen is so great” that they’re unlikely to abandon the Democratic nominee.
Concludes Herron, “Governor Bredesen is going to be Senator Bredesen.”
For now, the Tennessee Senate race Leans Republican. But as “Chip” Forrester said, “Things shift.”