IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In Tennessee Senate race, popularity squares off against party loyalty after Kavanaugh fight

Democrats have the right kind of candidate in Phil Bredesen, but will that be enough to overcome the nation's partisan divide?
Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen speaks with Thelma Harper, a Tennessee state representative, at an early voting kickoff event in Nashville on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.
Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen speaks with Thelma Harper, a Tennessee state representative, at an early voting kickoff event in Nashville on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.Marianna Sotomayor / NBC News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Phil Bredesen could be on the verge of doing something no Tennessee Democrat has done for nearly three decades — win a U.S. Senate race. But as the campaign heads into the final stretch, the popular former governor is realizing that even a strong independent resume and bipartisan respect throughout the state may not be enough to overcome the nation's partisan divide.

On paper, Bredesen appears to be the perfect Democratic candidate for the Volunteer State. He has deep political roots across the state, having twice been elected governor and carrying all 95 counties in his last re-election.

He's also a former Nashville mayor who was instrumental in the city's revitalization and has worked closely with business interests all over the state. And, according to most public opinion polls, he remains more likable than his Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

But as Election Day nears, Bredesen appears to be running up against his toughest opponent yet — partisan math. President Donald Trump carried this solidly red state by 26 points in 2016, and the last Democrat to win a Senate seat here was Al Gore in 1990.

And the national political conversation, particularly the bitter fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, has put the stark Republican-Democrat divide back into the center of the race.

Personality or Party?

In addition to his own popularity, Bredesen is counting on voter concerns about his opponent to help get him over the finish line.

In a wide-ranging interview with NBC News, the former governor argued that Blackburn is too extreme for the type of Republican that Tennessee traditionally elects to the Senate.

“I drew an opponent who was way, way, way over there in terms of she saw her job as emblematic of whatever Donald Trump wanted to do, and that opens up the middle for me in a way that might not have if it was a Bob Corker, for example, in the race,” Bredesen said, referring to the Tennessee Republican who is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year and whose seat he and Blackburn are looking to fill.

Bredesen points to Blackburn's hard-line positions on immigration, including her support of the wall along the southern border.

“I’m hoping obviously, the state, in the end, will come to its moderate roots that has been on display for so long,” Bredesen added. “If that happens, I’ll be the next senator.”

Tennessee does have a tradition of electing moderate Republicans steeped in policy. Republicans here point to consensus builders like former Sen. Howard Baker and current Sens. Lamar Alexander and Corker.

Blackburn, who has represented central Tennessee in Congress since 2003, and who prefers to be called congressman instead of congresswoman, has built a reputation in the House as a conservative ideologue, making abortion her central issue. She led the charge attacking Planned Parenthood when undercover conservative operatives filmed employees apparently discussing the sale of aborted fetus parts.

Blackburn’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

"Blackburn reps a very different kind of Tennessee Republican," said John Geer, dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University. "She’s good at attack politics, but she’s not a consensus builder."

Betting that he could win the popularity contest, Bredesen has been focusing on other issues, attempting to define the race as a local contest between he and Blackburn.

The Kavanaugh Question

The personality contest was working out well for Bredesen through most of the summer, as polls showed him running even with Blackburn, if not slightly ahead.

But the explosive Senate fight over sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh appears to have brought the partisan question back to the forefront.

Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Kavanaugh's confirmation "energized Republicans significantly."

"They come out and they think, 'I'm going to get out and vote for Republicans because I want to see the president's appointees, President Trump's picks, confirmed,'" he said.

Just minutes before the Senate narrowly voted to confirm Kavanaugh, Bredesen announced that that he would have supported the nominee had he been in the Senate. It's a decision he said was the right one even though it disappointed some of his supporters.

"I say there’s no way a Democrat can win Tennessee unless the candidate is Phil Bredesen and he runs a pitch-perfect campaign," said a Tennessee political operative who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. "While he got off to a strong start, the way the Kavanaugh nomination was handled was far from pitch perfect."

Even he concedes that the Kavanaugh debate changed the dynamics of the race. It reminded voters that it’s not just between Bredesen and Blackburn, but between Republicans and Democrats with control of the Senate potentially at stake.

“I think what’s happening is with the way in which the Kavanaugh hearings proceeded and sort of how much and how partisan they became and how bitter at the end, it tends to bring people back to their party,” Bredesen said. “People remember, ‘I’m a Republican,’ and people remember, ‘I’m a Democrat.’

Corker, who is close friends with Bredesen but endorsed Blackburn, told Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that the Democrats' handling of Kavanaugh changed the dynamics in the Tennessee Senate race and could hand the seat to Blackburn.

Despite the re-emergence of party loyalties, there are clear signs that the race remains close.

As early voting started throughout the state on Wednesday, Bredesen supporters gathered before dawn at a polling spot in an upper-class neighborhood in Nashville. Fresh off an endorsement by pop star Taylor Swift, a Nashville resident, the supporters listened to a Swift playlist, excited to vote for a Democrat that has a shot of winning in Tennessee.

Hugh, an independent voter and first-time campaign volunteer who declined to give his full name, said he felt compelled to sign up for Bredesen’s campaign because Blackburn is too close to Trump. "I think that she's pretty much 100 percent with Trump, and I think that anybody who is 100 percent with any president is probably not looking at both sides of the coin and is not able to work across the aisle," he said.

Polling shows the race close. A Vanderbilt University poll out on Thursday showed Bredesen ahead, 44 percent to 43 percent, while a Reuters poll on Wednesday showed Blackburn ahead, 47 percent to 44 percent.

Bredesen will need voters like Hugh, and a solid percentage of Republicans, if he has any chance of winning in the Volunteer State.

“I certainly hope I can continue to attract a reasonable amount of support among Independents,” Bredesen said.