Phil Bredesen wants to show a Dem can win in Tennessee

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NASHVILLE — Former Gov. Phil Bredesen is a Democrat running for the Senate in Tennessee, a difficult task in a state that backed President Trump by 26 points in 2016.

Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore in 1990 — Bredesen was the last statewide Democrat elected — and even in an election cycle where Democratic enthusiasm is sky-high, he faces an uphill battle to defeat conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

To win over voters, Bredesen, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, is seeking to convince Tennesseans that he’s their kind of Democrat as the party nationally moves further left on issues such as “Medicare for all” and impeaching Trump.

In an interview with The Hill, Bredesen called the national party’s brand “terrible,” arguing it has moved away from focusing on opportunities for middle- and working-class families.

And he’s underplaying the role his election could have in winning the Senate majority for Democrats, while declining to say whether he would support Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) if elected.

Republicans hold a 51-49 seat majority and have a favorable Senate map this year as Democrats must pick up two seats, while defending 10 seats in states that Trump won in 2016.

“I truly don’t think it’s going to happen this next time,” Bredesen, 74, said in an interview at a Labor Day picnic in Nashville about Democrats taking over the Senate.

“But it’s going to happen,” he added. “Wouldn’t you rather have a sensible, moderate Democrat as one of the Democrats up there and might help try to move the party more toward the center?”

Bredesen won his two elections for governor by peeling off Republican voters. Internal numbers show he could pull it off again, projecting a close race with either Bredesen up 6 points or Blackburn up 4.

But appealing to Republican voters as a Democrat has become harder in a state that’s turning a deeper shade of red. Bredesen will need to significantly overperform in more suburban and rural parts of Tennessee, which have been traditional GOP bastions.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) holds the seat Bredesen and Blackburn are fighting over. Corker had promised he would not serve more than two terms, though there were doubts about the occasional Trump critic surviving a Republican primary.

In his latest campaign, Bredesen has played up his time as governor and Nashville mayor, touting that he still has a good relationship with “economic Republicans,” or those in the business world.

And he argues that his profile more closely fits the mold of moderate Tennessee Republicans who’ve been elected, compared to Blackburn, noting the congresswoman is “counting on a combination of the take-no-prisoners conservatives and enough Republicans who won’t want to send a Democrat up” to Washington.

“I’m trying every way I know how to give people some comfort that I’m going to be independent and work on their behalf, and so far, it seems to be working,” Bredesen said after shaking hands with local union members who spent a hot Saturday afternoon grilling, listening to music and playing lawn games.

Bredesen has based his campaign on local issues, while avoiding criticizing Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

He said he’s willing to work with Republicans when beneficial for Tennesseans. And if Republicans hold the majority and pursue ObamaCare repeal again, Bredesen said he wants to work with both sides to stabilize the markets, saying he was open to considering a “sensible” replacement plan.

While he’s rebuffed the overall brand of the party, Bredesen, who’s loaned his campaign millions, is getting reinforcements from the Democrats’ top super PAC: Senate Majority PAC has already spent a million dollars on ads in August and has booked at least $2 million for fall advertising.

Blackburn, on the other hand, is banking on the hope that many Republicans won’t be able to stomach voting for a Democrat in deep-red Tennessee.

She’s making the case that it’s not worth taking the risk that her Democratic rival will side with Trump over Democratic leaders, making the case that a Bredesen win would be a victory for Democrats’ hopes to retake the Senate and a loss for Tennessee and its other GOP senator, Lamar Alexander.

“What Tennesseans talk about is in D.C., you’re either with the Republicans or with the Democrats,” Blackburn, 66, said during an interview with The Hill at a popular bakery in Brentwood.

“If Phil Bredesen were to win, that would not be helpful to the state and Sen. Alexander. They know the committee chairmen would all change,” she said, arguing that voters don’t want to see senators such as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helm committees.

She is also heavily focusing on tax reform at all levels, touting the bump in Americans’ paychecks from the GOP’s recent tax cuts and her time as a state senator pushing back against an effort to institute a state income tax.

Blackburn and Republicans have also spent time dissecting Bredesen’s gubernatorial record. In a $2 million ad buy, Americans for Prosperity — a Charles Koch-aligned group — knocks Bredesen for supporting gas and sales tax increases as governor. But Politifact has debunked that ad as false, saying that those taxes didn’t go up.

Blackburn has also painted herself as an unequivocal supporter of Trump, with her campaign and outside GOP groups portraying her as a close ally.

That has worried some Republicans, who told The Hill she’s become too reliant on Trump messaging. But Blackburn rattled off a list of issues on which she disagrees with the president, citing at the top the imposition of tariffs on a wide range of imports.

Tennessee has a large automobile industry that relies on steel and aluminum imports. She also added that she’d be more “aggressive” in restructuring the federal government.

If she wins in November, Blackburn would make history as the first woman elected to the Senate in Tennessee.

In a cycle where Democratic women have largely made electoral gains, Blackburn argued that she’s looking to counter the narrative, which she largely believes favors liberal women.

“I think you understand from the get-go that there’s going to be some challenges because generally conservative women are not viewed by the media in the same manner as women who are liberal or have a D beside their name,” Blackburn said. “You … don’t look at it as a stumbling block. You look at it as an opportunity … to change someone’s impression.”

But Bredesen would also be making big strides of his own should he be elected – by showing a Democrat can still win over Republicans in Tennessee in the polarized climate of 2018.

“It’s a real battle between someone espousing issues of bipartisanship and compromise and someone saying ‘you know how I’m going to vote,’ ” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “Is there a political center left in Tennessee?”

Tags Al Gore Bernie Sanders Bob Corker Charles Schumer Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Lamar Alexander Marsha Blackburn Mitch McConnell
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