Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has defeated former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in the race for a Senate seat, keeping a red state in the GOP’s column.
Blackburn led Bredesen by 62 percent to 37 percent, with nine percent of precincts reporting. Multiple networks have called the race.
Her victory replaces an establishment-minded Republican with a Trump-aligned firebrand in the Senate. Blackburn has been known for years for her long fight to ban abortion and other socially conservative crusades. She was one of President Trump’s most vocal early supporters, and she served as a vice chair on his presidential transition team.
The race was unusually competitive for deep-red Tennessee, largely because of Bredesen’s singular popularity from his time as governor but also because Blackburn struggled to lock down moderate Republicans for much of the election. But the state’s deep red hue was too much for Bredesen to overcome given how sharply polarized voters have become with Trump in office.
Blackburn’s campaign leaned hard into tying Bredesen to his national party, featuring ads of him inter-spliced with footage of Hillary Clinton and President Obama. And she hammered him on immigration, airing ads highlighting the refugee caravan and attacking his move as governor to give undocumented immigrants drivers’ licenses, while claiming he opposed President Trump’s immigration views.
Tennessee has long elected more establishment-minded Republicans to statewide office, but Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) decision to retire guaranteed an end to that historic pattern. Corker’s own approach to the race indicated why this was so competitive: While he reluctantly endorsed Blackburn, Corker refused to say a bad word about his old friend Bredesen throughout the campaign.
Bredesen hugged the center throughout the race, speaking in soft tones about Trump and talking up areas where they agree, like changing prescription drug pricing for Medicare, while breaking with Trump over his trade war and healthcare. His final ad talked up his “putting aside partisanship and figuring out how to get things done.” He highlighted his time balancing budgets without increasing most taxes as governor, and he ran ads featuring prominent Republicans praising his moderation. He also painted Blackburn as a sharp-edged partisan more interested in politics than moving the state forward.
And Blackburn gave him some ammunition. A “60 Minutes” investigation exposed that she’d championed a law that made it harder for the federal government to crack down on bad-actor drug companies, a huge issue in Tennessee given how hard the opioid crisis has hit there. And her firebrand conservatism allowed Bredesen to woo moderate suburbanites around Nashville, Memphis and the state’s smaller cities that had voted for few if any Democrats since they backed him in his 2006 reelection.
The wealthy Bredesen also had a major cash advantage in the race, as he self-funded ads for much of the summer that bolstered his centrist status and kept him in the race when her attack ads began coming.
But that changed during the fight over confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which energized Republicans and put him in a tough spot. Bredesen was caught crossways between his base and the conservative-leaning independents he needed to win in the race, eventually saying on the day of the Senate vote that he would have backed the judge.
While Bredesen’s personal favorability numbers stayed above Blackburn’s for most of the campaign, the “R” next to her name proved to be enough to pull out a win.