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In Tennessee Senate race, a clear test of centrism vs. ideology

Why We Wrote This

In an era of political tribalism, does a bipartisan centrist represent the past or the future? That’s the question at the heart of a Senate race in Tennessee pitting partisanship against statesmanship.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn take part in Tennessee's US Senate debate at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Oct. 10. The candidates propose two very different styles of governance.

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It is perhaps the clearest test of centrism versus ideology among competitive US Senate races: In Tennessee, the congenial, “old-school” Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen, a former two-term governor, is running against the pistol-toting Republican firebrand Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who calls herself “politically incorrect and proud of it.” While the two diverge on many traditional issues such as gun control, what truly sets them apart is governing style. By most measures, Republicans ought to have this seat in the bag. Yet the Cook Political Report rates this seat a “toss-up” – and a big reason is Mr. Bredesen’s broad appeal and familiarity. Both candidates have blockbuster endorsements: Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Taylor Swift broke her political silence to endorse Bredesen on Instagram, contributing to a voter registration spike in Tennessee and nationwide. And President Trump has ginned up the base with two rallies on Ms. Blackburn’s behalf, with a third planned this weekend. As Bredesen told supporters in Nashville in October, voters have “a very clear choice between two very different styles and very different ideas about what governing is about.”

To watch Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen deliver a stump speech before a lunchtime Tennessee crowd, is to wonder whether one is looking at a future where US senators rediscover congeniality and bipartisanship – or at the past, at a throwback politician who is out of step with today’s take-no-prisoners, tribal approach to governing.

This grandfatherly figure could legitimately be called “old school,” and that’s the point. In this competitive contest in a red state, Democrats have in Mr. Bredesen a self-made health care executive who went on to become a respected politician with a history of coalition building – first as mayor of Nashville, and then as a popular two-term governor. He’s running against Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican firebrand who totes a pistol in her purse and has attached herself to President Trump like Velcro.

It is the clearest test of centrism vs. ideology among the competitive Senate races, say analysts.

Certainly, that’s how Bredesen is framing his message, in a state Democrats hope to flip. Sure, he talks about issues like health care, but you won’t find an “issues” tab on his campaign website. For him, it’s all about governing style.

Voters have “a very clear choice between two very different styles and very different ideas about what governing is about,” Bredesen told enthusiastic supporters at a live-music restaurant in Nashville on the first day of early voting in October. The country has settled into a type of governing that’s all about drawing lines in the sand, he said. “It’s a terrible place for America to be.”

Landmark legislation like Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act showed that the parties can’t solve big problems without working together, says Bredesen, looking formal in a dark suit and tie, but sounding folksy nonetheless. “I very much want our country to get back to that” – to the days when lawmakers argued in the halls of Congress, but then “went out to dinner or something and kind of talked things through.”

By any logical measure, Republicans ought to have this seat in the bag. While Democrats run Tennessee’s big cities, the GOP controls the governorship and holds supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Two years ago, Mr. Trump won Tennessee by 26 points.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen poses for a photo with Franchetta Greer as Bredesen campaigns Oct. 30, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn., in his bid for US Senate. Republicans would typically have this seat in the bag, but Bredesen's broad appeal has made this race a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report.

“The state’s changed. It’s much more conservative and much more Republican than it was several decades ago,” says Tom Ingram, a GOP consultant in Tennessee.

Yet the independent Cook Political Report rates this seat a “toss-up” – and a big reason is Bredesen’s broad appeal and familiarity. He is reminiscent of the statesmanlike politicians that have traditionally been elected in Tennessee, says Mr. Ingram. 

Those include former Republican Senate majority leader Howard Baker – who was a partisan, but hammered out the Clean Air Act with Maine Democrat Ed Muskie; “new Democrat” Al Gore, who became vice president to Bill Clinton; and today’s GOP senators, Lamar Alexander, known for his bipartisanship, and the retiring Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (Ingram oversaw both of their campaigns, and was Senator Alexander’s chief of staff.)

Senator Corker has been an outspoken Trump critic, and at a Monitor breakfast in April he praised at length the Democrat running to succeed him. Though he donated the maximum allowable to Blackburn, he said he would not campaign against Bredesen.

Indeed, Corker and Bredesen are longtime friends and collaborators, together bringing the Titans football team and Volkswagen to the state. As governor, Bredesen established his fiscal bona fides with Republicans with cuts to the state’s troubled Medicaid program, known as TennCare. More recently, he announced he would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, deeply disappointing many Democrats.

Bredesen’s is a “less partisan, gentler-messaged” campaign, Ingram says, from a well-liked politician who once won every county in the state. Ingram believes a significant number of Republicans will cross over to the Democrat. He describes Blackburn’s campaign as a more “polarized presentation” of a conservative who is close to Trump and working to become better known outside her district.

Or as Bredesen puts it, “I’m running against someone who has that very hard-nosed, partisan view. It is all about supporting President Trump, doing exactly what he wants. You know: Republicans are good, Democrats are bad – ‘Demoncrats’ as she likes to call them.” He concludes: “If that’s what you’re looking for, I’m not your guy.”

He highlights his bipartisan record in revitalizing Nashville with a sports arena, professional teams, and a new library system, and getting the state out of the Great Recession with balanced budgets, outside auto investors, and statewide pre-K.

A ‘policy bludgeon’

After a recent breakfast with supporters at Jenkins Restaurant in the southeastern town of Cleveland, Blackburn sits down for an interview about today’s partisan divisiveness, women lawmakers, and fixing a broken Senate – one of her campaign goals.

Congressional Quarterly describes this former door-to-door bookseller as a “policy bludgeon.” She’s a hard charger on issues like gun rights and tax cuts (as a state senator, she led a successful crusade against a state income tax). She’s a staunch member of the Pro-Life Caucus, chairing a select House panel to investigate allegations of illicit trade in fetal tissue by the “abortion industry.” Democrats opposed the panel. She also cosponsored the controversial “birther” bill borne out of now-discredited attacks on former President Barack Obama’s qualifications to hold office.

“I’m a hard-core, card-carrying conservative. I’m politically incorrect and proud of it,” Blackburn announced when she decided last year to run for Corker’s Senate seat. She’s a reliable GOP vote on a host of other issues, including Obamacare repeal. 

And yet, the congressman (she prefers that to congresswoman) says she is “recognized as a bipartisan leader” in the House, where she has represented her central Tennessee district for 16 years and chairs the subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

She ticks off a series of bipartisan bills, from reauthorizing the Federal Communications Commission to legislation she co-sponsored with Rep. Joe Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts that made certain hearing aids available over the counter. She’s also a lead sponsor of a bipartisan bill to make broadcasters pay artists and record labels whenever their songs are played on the radio – a natural stance, given she lives just outside Nashville (“Music City”), played piano for her church when she was growing up, and is a staunch defender of intellectual property.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican candidate for Senate, is welcomed by President Trump at a rally Oct. 1, 2018, in Johnson City, Tenn. Blackburn has attached herself to Trump, who has attended rallies to gin up the base for her.

As a woman senator, she says she would bring a “collaborative” style and looks forward to taking part in the informal, bipartisan women’s dinners hosted by Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. She finds today’s political divisiveness “really troubling.”

Still, Blackburn is running her statewide campaign for Senate as if she were running for her safe district in the House, Ingram says.

Indeed, that is how her campaign pitch plays out to a clutch of early-morning supporters. Though Bredesen says he won’t back minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York if elected, Blackburn pastes him to the Democratic leader, saying “his very first vote would be for Chuck Schumer.”

One by one, she goes through the dangers of a Senate led by the New Yorker. Standing next to a big, red “Stop Schumer” sign, she tells her listeners to forget conservative judges and justices like Brett Kavanaugh if Senator Feinstein gets the Judiciary Committee gavel; “you get a tax increase” if Elizabeth Warren takes over the Finance Committee; and Bernie Sanders would head the Budget Committee. “A vote for Phil Bredesen is a vote for every one of them. Every one.”

And then there's the border. Tennesseans “want somebody who is going to support building a wall,” to which one supporter, Annie Campbell, gives an emphatic “uh-huh.”

Ms. Campbell, an X-ray technician, exclaims, “She’s terrific!” after Blackburn is done. Campbell has seen Blackburn many times on television where she delivers pointed soundbites as a frequent guest on Fox News. “She’s common sense. Kind of fearless, and speaks her mind. She means what she says,” Campbell concludes. The most important thing: Blackburn backs Trump. “I’ve been a fan of his for years.”

And Phil Bredesen? “That was then, this is now.”

Indeed, Republicans cast him not only as a dangerous liberal, but as a relic.

“He’s a professional football player, running onto the field in a leather helmet,” says Michael Sullivan, the executive director of the state GOP. “He’s going to get a concussion.” Today’s Senate is not like yesterday’s, says Mr. Sullivan, pointing, for instance, to a public able to follow closely what a lawmaker is doing. If Bredesen wants to craft back-room legislation out of the spotlight, he is “living in yesteryear.”

When asked about how to fix the dysfunctional and deeply divided Senate, Sullivan says part of the answer is to elect more Republicans to stop Democratic obstruction. Blackburn adds that “the people” have a faster schedule than the Senate’s. To hasten the president’s “bold” agenda, she wants to get rid of the 60-vote threshold for all budget issues – a big leap that would deprive the minority party of a lot of leverage.

The Senate’s slow pace is a typical complaint of members of the House, where a simple majority rules the day. But the solution is not to make the deliberative Senate more like the House, says Ingram, the GOP consultant. “I don’t think anyone would suggest the House is fixed. I think it would take a significantly different approach in style and tone to fix the Senate.”

The Swift factor

On a recent weeknight, every seat is taken at the cozy Bluebird Cafe, a live-music venue in Nashville where the “Shhh policy” has everyone listening attentively to up-and-coming songwriters. On this evening, four talented young musicians take turns on their acoustic guitars and keyboards, explaining the story behind the song before pouring out their heartache or joy.

After the performance, they mix with fans, and two of them answer a reporter’s questions about a music industry bombshell: Grammy-award winner Taylor Swift breaking her political silence to endorse Bredesen over Blackburn on Instagram. Ms. Swift favors Bredesen because of her concern over LGBTQ rights and racial equality, and she urged her 112 million followers – especially those who have turned 18 since the last election – to register and vote their own values.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Mae Estes (2nd from l.) poses for a photo with fellow musicians after a performance at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct.18. Ms. Estes praised pop star Taylor Swift for using her platform to urge her followers to vote. Ms. Swift broke her political silence to endorse the Democratic candidate, Phil Bredesen.

“It’s risky, because by saying who she’s voting for, she absolutely could offend the entire other audience,” says Mae Estes, one of the performers. But Ms. Estes praises the pop star for understanding her “power” and using it wisely, leaving open the door for people to vote as they see fit. “It brought a lot of people out to vote that typically wouldn’t.” In Nashville, she adds, “it’s becoming the cool thing to do.”

Like all close races in the country, this one will ultimately hinge on which candidate gets more of their supporters to the polls. Blackburn has Trump on her side, ginning up the base with two rallies on her behalf. He will hold a third on Sunday. Bredesen’s ace is Swift, who sent out another Instagram message on Tuesday, picturing her and her mom in front of a giant Bredesen sign, after they voted for the “reasonable and trustworthy” candidate.

For Democrats who were concerned that Bredesen’s backing of Kavanaugh had deflated voter enthusiasm on their side, Swift’s endorsement was like manna from heaven. Indeed, several Bredesen supporters casting early votes near downtown Nashville expressed disappointment in his stance on the Supreme Court justice. 

That includes Mackenzie Hammerstrom, a newly married voter who works in advertising. “Marsha Blackburn would be a terror. She does not support women's rights,” says Ms. Hammerstrom. Bredesen, while disappointing on Kavanaugh, shares Hammerstrom’s values on gun control and health care. Hammerstrom called this a “change” election and “loved it” that Swift went political and came out for the former governor.

In the 24 hours after Swift’s first post, voter registration spiked by 65,000 nationwide, Vote.org’s director of communications told Buzzfeed. In Tennessee, registration spiked by 2,144 new voters. Meanwhile, early voting in the state has skyrocketed to historic levels for a midterm, surpassing 1.1 million voters through Tuesday, just below the pace of the 2016 presidential election.

It’s a similar story around the country – but particularly noteworthy in Tennessee, which ranked dead last in turnout in the 2014 midterms, says Katie Cahill, director of the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The test for Blackburn is whether she can pull voters outside of her district, says Dr. Cahill, while the biggest unknown factor for Bredesen is young people – the largest potential voting bloc, but historically unreliable as voters.

In the picturesque town of Franklin in Blackburn’s congressional district, day two of early voting looked like Election Day. Cars searched for spaces in a full parking lot as voters streamed in and out of the municipal office building. More than one person cited Kavanaugh as their motivator.

“I’m raring to vote,” said William Morgan, who is in the construction business. “I am so upset watching what the Democrats did to Judge-Justice Kavanaugh.” Another voter voiced similar passion over the issue, adding that he voted early because he wanted to avoid the rush on Nov. 6.

The rush? In a midterm?

But that’s the way this election is shaping up, here in the Volunteer state and elsewhere.

Staff writer Bailey Bischoff contributed to this report.

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