Tenn. Republicans to go on offense against Dem

Tenn. Republicans to go on offense against Dem
© Greg Nash - Getty Images

The race to replace retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerMcConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight MORE (R-Tenn.) is becoming a referendum on the current state of American politics, pitting the dueling theories that partisanship matters above all else against former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s (D-Mass.) old axiom that all politics are local.

On one side is Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnAbortion wars flare up in Congress Hillicon Valley: Judge approves T-Mobile, Sprint merger | FTC to review past Big Tech deals | State officials ask for more cybersecurity help | House nears draft bill on self-driving cars Senate GOP blocks three election security bills MORE (R), who has spent 16 years in Congress building one of the most conservative records in the Republican conference. Blackburn has freely embraced President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister MORE, who may be polarizing around the country but has strong approval ratings in Tennessee.

On the other is popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who is campaigning on local issues, touting his work to bring jobs and an NFL franchise to the Volunteer State as governor and mayor of Nashville. He has pledged to work with Trump when it’s good for Tennessee, but act as a check when it isn’t.

ADVERTISEMENT

That Tennessee is even competitive is a surprise in a year when Republicans are looking to expand their slim Senate majority. Both public and private polls show Bredesen leading Blackburn by single digits. An Emerson College survey released earlier this month shows Bredesen leading 43 percent to 37 percent, a result that mirrors internal surveys conducted for both Democratic and Republican outside groups.

Those polls reflect an electorate that, so far, has heard a lot more from Bredesen than from Blackburn. Bredesen, a former health-care executive, has loaned his own campaign more than $3.4 million, and he has been running paid advertisements since March. 

“It’ll end up being close. I’ve seen polls that show it both ways,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R), a Blackburn backer, told The Hill.

Republicans have been slower to jump into the paid media fray, in part because Tennessee voters are being inundated by ads from candidates for other offices.

While Blackburn faces no serious opposition in the Republican primary on Aug. 2, airwaves across the state have been filled by ads from four well-funded contenders battling for the Republican nomination for governor. Since May 1, those candidates have spent more than $30 million on television spots, drowning out virtually all other conversation.

“She has not been very visible at all, while Bredesen has been running hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in television [airtime],” longtime Republican strategist Tom Ingram said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The race so far is reminiscent of another contest that featured a popular, well-funded politician taking another stab at public life. In that contest, former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) started a run for his old Indiana seat in 2016 with nearly $10 million in the bank.  

Republicans did not attack him until after Labor Day, when Bayh led then-Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R) by more than 20 points. But after a barrage of negative ads funded by prominent outside groups, Young beat Bayh by 10 points.

In conversations with Republican activists across the state, Blackburn’s campaign has hinted that a similar assault is being prepared against Bredesen tying him closely to Democratic leaders.

“We’re going to make sure that he is in a corner, and we are going to constantly punch him in his face over and over and over again. This race will not be won by death by a thousand cuts. It’s going to be death by 10,000 cuts,” Ward Baker, the Tennessee native masterminding Blackburn’s campaign, told activists recently, according to The Tennessean.

This year, the Republican assault is slated to begin shortly after Labor Day, when the Senate Leadership Fund, the largest outside Republican group in the field, starts placing ads during the week of Sept. 11. So far, they have booked $4.4 million in airtime, according to a source watching the advertising market.

Meanwhile, the Senate Majority PAC, the top Democratic outside group, has purchased $3.4 million in airtime to begin in October. 

Blackburn’s strategy, insiders say, is to make the race a national referendum on Trump, and on Democratic leaders like Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' MORE (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders on the rise as Nevada debate looms Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Malaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations MORE (Calif.), as well as progressive stars like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren: Bloomberg making debate will show how other candidates handle 'an egomaniac billionaire' Klobuchar campaign gets first super PAC HuffPost reporter: Sanders could win plurality of delegates but lose nomination MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Warren: Bloomberg making debate will show how other candidates handle 'an egomaniac billionaire' HuffPost reporter: Sanders could win plurality of delegates but lose nomination MORE (I-Vt.).

“Some people want Elizabeth Warren as the Finance chairman, some people don’t,” said one top Blackburn adviser. “Some people want Bernie Sanders as the Banking Committee chairman, a lot more people don’t.”

Complicating matters for Republicans, though, is Corker himself. Corker has publicly supported Blackburn, contributing the maximum amount allowed to her campaign and appearing at a Nashville rally with her and Trump, who has strongly endorsed the congresswoman.

But privately Corker has questioned whether she can win statewide. Corker, as mayor of Chattanooga, worked with Bredesen to bring a Volkswagen plant to the city and has said he will not campaign against the Democrat.

Bredesen’s campaign points to his relationship with Corker, even drawing those comparisons in public in a play to moderate voters.

Bredesen spoke with both Corker and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (R-Tenn.) before jumping in the race, and he consulted Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire Senate drama surrounding Trump trial starts to fizzle Overnight Defense: Trump rolls back restrictions on land mines | Pentagon issues guidance on coronavirus | Impeachment trial nears end after Senate rejects witnesses MORE (R-S.D.), whom he worked with when they were both governors. 

The former Tennessee governor has focused his campaign on hyperlocal issues, like keeping invasive Asian carp out of Western Tennessee waterways and allowing the Tennessee Valley Authority to offer broadband service.

But in a hyperpartisan time, the Blackburn team believes Tennesseans are conservative enough that Blackburn’s strong support for Trump will ultimately win her a majority.

“Tennessee is a much more red state than it was in 2002, when Gov. Bredesen had his last competitive statewide race,” said Jack Johnson, a Republican state senator. 

Bredesen “will vote for Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' MORE to be majority leader, and I think that is something that is resonating with people,” Johnson said. Blackburn “is making the case to voters in Tennessee that she does support President Trump on a number of his major initiatives, including immigration, and obviously, for Supreme Court nominees as well.”

For most of the last century, Tennessee voters have sent Democrats to the Senate. Republicans controlled both Senate seats only twice during the 20th century — for a six-year period in the 1970s, and beginning again in 1994, when Republicans Fred Thompson and Bill Frist won, ushering in a period of GOP dominance.

But Blackburn is different from most statewide Republicans elected in recent years. Corker and Alexander are more Chamber of Commerce Republicans than Tea Party types, as is outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam (R).

“They’re all conservatives, but they’re not shouting, radical conservatives,” Ingram said of the present incumbents. “Historically, in statewide races, even as a conservative state, Tennessee has been right of center but not off the cliff. It’s progressively getting more conservative.”