Dems hope Bredesen can still win over Tenn. voters

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s (D) entry into Tennessee’s Senate race could be a big win for Democrats, who feel his unique strengths could give them a rare shot at a Senate seat in the red state. 

Bredesen was the last Democrat to win statewide office in the state, emboldening Democrats who think he can buck Tennessee’s drift toward the GOP and fill the seat now held by Republican Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing GOP senators frustrated with Romney jabs at Trump MORE

But several other former lawmakers’ failed bids for the Senate in the last cycle election cycle have some observers openly wondering whether Bredesen, who has been off the campaign trail for more than a decade, can successfully reenter the political arena.

“It gives the Democrats a fighting chance in a state where they arguably don’t have much business competing in,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“A governor’s race is different from a Senate race. It’s a nationalized contest, often, and the Senate seat has become more Republican over time, so it’s definitely an uphill battle for him.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Democrats celebrated Bredesen’s entry on Thursday, while the announcement prompted Cook Political Report to change its election rating of the race to “toss-up.” But other nonpartisan handicappers are holding off changing their own ratings in Democrats’ favor, since the Volunteer State still trends toward Republicans.

Bredesen, 74, also faces another daunting fact in Tennessee: Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat there in nearly 30 years.

In his announcement video, Bredesen sits on a porch overlooking a field as he talks about how he can fix a “broken” Washington with bipartisanship.

Bredesen’s campaign has already scared off at least one potential Democratic challenger, but it looks like he won’t be able to completely clear the primary field.

Democrat James Mackler, 44, entered the race before Corker announced his retirement in September and affirmed after Bredesen entered that he won’t drop out. Mackler, citing eight months of campaigning around the state, insisted that Tennesseans are responding to his “story of service and sacrifice.”

But Mackler, an attorney and Iraq War veteran, argued that Democrats need to stay focused on GOP Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising On The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed MORE (Tenn.), a top candidate in the Republican primary.

In an interview with The Hill, Mackler condemned Blackburn’s reluctance to completely denounce Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore over sexual misconduct allegations, and slammed her vote for the GOP tax bill.

“I think that’s where we as Democrats need to be really focused,” Mackler told The Hill. “I hope that Gov. Bredesen getting into this race does create more national attention on these critically important issues.”

Mackler said he’s raised about $1 million since jumping into the race. But Bredesen will be able to commit his own money to the race — likely a necessity in the general election, since national Democrats are expected to prioritize better offense opportunities in Nevada and Arizona.

Still, some Democrats are advising caution on Bredesen, who hasn’t campaigned for office since his 2006 reelection race. 

Some, including liberal blog Daily Kos, pointed to Bredesen as potentially the latest in a series of unsuccessful comeback bids, following former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), all of whom ran unsuccessfully for the upper chamber in 2016 after being out of politics for years. 

Some political observers argued that those 2016 Senate failures said more about the tough election year Democrats faced than about returning politicians’ political appeal. And Democrats hope Bredesen will be boosted by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes MORE’s low approval ratings.

ADVERTISEMENT

One Democratic staffer who worked on a 2016 Senate campaign said that politicians who have been out of office for a while need to focus on the future, rather than past political achievements. 

The staffer suggested that Bredesen not shy away from keeping the conversation on the economy. 

“Those things are really important because you've got to remind people why they elected you in the first place, but also how that is a starting point to talk about what you’ll do for them in the future,” the former Democratic campaign staffer told The Hill.

“I think you have to be relentlessly focused on the economy. I don’t think we’re doing it enough as a party generally.”

Republicans acknowledge that Bredesen could make a strong candidate, but believe he’ll need to run a flawless campaign to have a chance at taking the seat. 

“If I’m the Bredesen campaign, I’ve got to be perfect, I have to hope my opposition makes a lot of mistakes, and the national environment is really bad,” said a veteran Republican strategist in Tennessee. “That’s a lot of hoping.” 

Concerned Republicans envision a scenario where an ugly primary between Blackburn and former Rep. Stephen FincherStephen Lee FincherTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE (R-Tenn.) could help Bredesen appeal to moderate Republicans dissatisfied with the eventual GOP nominee.

“If they’re too rough and tough, you always have a challenge of backlash,” the GOP strategist said. “That is what Democrats are banking on: a little Trump backlash and a very competitive primary that gets too negative.”