How Phil Bredesen is trying to win in deep-red Tennessee

NASHVILLE — Democrat Phil Bredesen has a history of winning in ruby-red Tennessee. Now, he’s seeking to prove he can do it again in 2018.

The Democrat narrowly won his first term as Tennessee governor in 2002. Four years later, he swept all 95 counties in his reelection race in 2006—the last time a Democrat won a statewide race in the Volunteer State.

After more than a decade away from the campaign trail, the popular former governor and Nashville mayor is now attempting a comeback in a completely new environment, as he faces off in November against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R).

{mosads} But since he last held office, Tennessee – a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since former Vice President Al Gore in 1990 – has become an even deeper shade of red: President Trump won it by 26 points in 2016

That means the race will hinge on whether Bredesen can run up the score in GOP strongholds across the state that should be a more natural fit for Blackburn. It is also bound to be an expensive race with outside groups already escalating spending, and one also likely to be determined by the big unknown: how Trump will end up factoring into the race.

Bredesen and his allies believe it is a challenge within his grasp.

In a measure of Bredesen’s standing in the state, polls over the past few months have shown a close race. Though the former governor was ahead by several points earlier this year, the latest public poll from early August has Blackburn slightly ahead.

Tennessee Republicans who spoke with The Hill said they’ve seen recent internal polls that show the race anywhere from Bredesen up 6 points to Blackburn up 4, with Bredesen holding a higher favorability.

“As of today, the race looks like a jump ball, but with every advantage looking torward Marsha,” said Chip Saltsman, a veteran GOP strategist and former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Bredesen’s path to victory mirrors what many red-state Democrats will need to pull off in other tough Senate and House races this cycle as Republicans seek to retain their slim 50-49 majority.

He needs to run up the score in Tennessee’s main urban centers: Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Tri-Cities, which is in the northeast corner of the state.

He’ll especially have to juice turnout in Nashville, where he served as mayor from 1991 to 1999, and Davidson County where the city is located.

Strategists also point to the importance of West Tennessee an area that is bluer and more diverse, and includes Shelby County, the largest county in the state and home to Memphis.

But Bredesen will need more than that, according to strategists, as he’ll need enough Republican voters in suburbs and rural areas to break his way.

Tennessee doesn’t have party registration, but about 723,000 people voted in the Senate GOP primary, nearly double the number of people who voted in Democrats’ primary.

“There simply aren’t enough urban voters to elect Democrats statewide in Tennessee,” said Kent Syler, a former Democratic congressional staffer and political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Can he win back people who voted for him in 2006, but chose Donald Trump in 2016, many of whom did so because they disliked Hillary Clinton?”

Experts point to East Tennessee as one of the biggest battlegrounds. It’s traditionally Republican, which should favor Blackburn, but it has been a familiar stomping ground for Bredesen.

Bredesen won by a few points in the Knoxville media market in 2002 but strategists say he’ll need to shave off 5 to 7 points off the GOP’s margin of victory in parts of East Tennessee, where Republicans have won in the 60-percent range.

Meanwhile, Bredesen will also need to cut his losses in rural areas including places where Trump won by up to 80 points.

One strategist points to Bradley County, one of the most Republican performing counties in Tennessee that has gone to the GOP by 75 percent, saying that Bredesen would need to tamp down that GOP margin to around 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Blackburn needs to dominate in her congressional seat. She’s represented Tennessee’s 7th District in the central part of the state since 2003, and she has built up a conservative portfolio that dates back to her time in the state legislature when she successfully fought against a state income tax — something she frequently touts.

“We’re going to win, we’ve got real support all across the state, and working hard to win every vote,” Blackburn told The Hill in a sitdown interview at a popular bakery in Brentwood, adding that she’s not surprised by the competitive nature of the race.

“Tennesseans are not going to be the ones to cause the U.S. Senate to flip.”

But this is still her first statewide race, while Bredesen remains well known, including for helping attract the Tennessee Titans football team to Nashville when he was mayor.

Strategists also believe the race will hinge on money, in what is expected to be an expensive race.

Bredesen, a former health insurance executive who has previously self-funded his campaigns, has raised $8.5 million since December, loaning his campaign $3.5 million out of that. That’s slightly above Blackburn who has been a prolific fundraiser, and has brought in nearly $8.1 million since the start of the cycle.

Bredesen is already funneling some of the money into ads, having blanketed the airwaves since March with five statewide TV and digital spots.

That has forced Blackburn to turn up the intensity with several statewide ad buys of her own since the August primaries.

Meanwhile, outside group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group affiliated with mega-donor Charles Koch, has spent $2 million in attack ads against Bredesen that his campaign has countered.

And the parties’ main super PACs were also up with million-dollar ad buys in August. They have reserved several millions of dollars in fall TV ads that’ll start as early as the second week in September as well.

Trump is also likely to loom large in a state where he remains popular. Corker, a two-term senator who has clashed with Trump, ultimately decided not to pursue reelection.

Blackburn, 66, has cast herself as a reliable Trump supporter, keeping her focus largely on national issues. In May, Trump held a rally in Nashville where he invited Blackburn onstage and called Bredesen an “absolute tool” of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

By contrast, Bredesen, who’s leaning heavily on his gubernatorial record, is hoping to repeat history, running a more localized race and casting himself as a moderate willing to work with Trump when it benefits Tennessee.

“A generic Democrat, well-qualified, would have a very tough time in a Senate race in Tennessee. It’s just the fact that I’ve been governor for eight years, left office with a lot of good feelings about the time,” Bredesen told The Hill at a Labor Day picnic in Nashville.

“My biggest challenge is there’s a lot of people whose attitude is ‘loved you as governor, voted for you, I’m not really sure I want to send a Democrat to Washington.’”

Tags Al Gore Bob Corker Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Marsha Blackburn

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video