Tennessee Senate: Why I’m Cautious About Phil Bredesen’s Prospects

by Stuart Rothenberg April 30, 2018 · 9:10 AM EDT

Two early surveys show former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, holding a lead over Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn in hypothetical ballot tests of this year’s Senate race.

Those polls, along with kind words about Bredesen from retiring Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, have raised the contest’s profile and heightened the buzz. But it’s best to be cautious about the former governor’s prospects as you watch the race play out.

A businessman and former two-term mayor of Nashville before he was elected to his state’s highest office, Bredesen has received bipartisan praise over the years for his leadership and pragmatic approach to government.

“He was a very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person,” Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, said recently. But that reputation may not be enough to elect the Democrat in November.

There is a huge difference between running in a state or local contest and running in a federal race. State and local offices are less about ideology and more about leadership, pragmatism and management skills.

Federal campaigns and elections are much more about “hot-button” issues that divide the parties and the country. That’s why Kansas voters could elect Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor in 2002 and 2006 but have not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

It’s the same reason why Republican Linda Lingle was elected governor of Hawaii but crushed when she ran for the Senate. And it’s the same reason liberal Maryland voters could elect Republican Larry Hogan as governor but not give Republican Senate hopefuls even a passing glance.

Different stakes
But in Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas about taxes, government, entitlements, abortion rights, gay marriage, gun ownership, immigration and — at least traditionally — government spending. Party allegiance is much more important when voters decide who to send to Capitol Hill.

Bredesen was never seen as a liberal, partisan Democrat, and his early poll numbers suggest that Tennessee voters still regard him as a moderate and pragmatist.

But Republican operatives will unload on the former governor during the next six months, portraying him as a tool of Democratic Senate leader Charles E. Schumer, House leader Nancy Pelosi and every liberal Democrat they can stuff into a television commercial.

Indeed, shortly after Corker offered his complimentary comments about Bredesen, a Blackburn spokesperson responded that “Phil Bredesen will be a solid vote for Chuck Schumer and Obama, Clinton-era liberal policies, and Tennesseans are not interested in that.”

Can Bredesen respond to those charges effectively, or will Republicans succeed in painting him as just another liberal Democrat who will vote with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders?

Unless Bredesen can convince voters that he will be independent, the state’s Republicans and conservatives will return to their default position, which means supporting the GOP nominee.

Quality recruit
But while I remain cautious, even initially skeptical, about Bredesen’s chances of winning a Senate seat in what is an increasingly conservative and Republican state, I certainly don’t dismiss his prospects. He is a quality candidate.

The initial videos run by Bredesen and Blackburn show why even national Republicans are now worried about their hold on the open seat. One Republican I spoke to about the videos told me that Bredesen’s was ten times better than Blackburn’s.

Bredesen’s December campaign announcement video, a two-and-a-half-minute spot, featured the candidate talking to viewers. Dressed in a plaid shirt and vest and sitting on a porch, the ad immediately reminded me of spots by former Sen. Fred Thompson and Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Thompson, an actor, was phenomenal talking to the camera, and Bredesen is as good — serious, a little folksy, sincere and clear-spoken

He mentioned the economy, health insurance, the opioid crisis and Congress borrowing money. Then he talked about his business background, his mayoral experience and his successes as governor, noting that he didn’t hike the sales tax or institute a state income tax.

As he talked, the camera pushed in very slowly, drawing the viewer in. “We need and deserve something better than we are getting from Washington. And we need and deserve a senator who can make that happen. I’m applying for the job,” said Bredesen as the screen fades to black. It’s a spectacular video.

“Solutions” is a 30-second spot that features the Democrat talking to the camera about his accomplishments as governor. “Ought to Do” is a 30-second ad that features Bredesen, dressed in a suit and tie and speaking off camera, talking about the president, who carried Tennessee by 26 points in 2016.

“I’m not running against Donald Trump,” he says. “I’m running for a Senate seat to represent the people of Tennessee. I learned a long time ago to separate the message from the messenger. There’s a lot of things I don’t personally like about Donald Trump, but he’s the president of the United States, and if he has an idea and is pushing some things that I think are good for the people of Tennessee, I’m going to be for it. It doesn’t matter where it came from. And likewise, if I think it’s not going to be good for Tennessee, I’m going to be against it. I think that’s what senators ought to do.”

In contrast, Blackburn’s announcement video, released back in October, had her talking to camera about her ideology. She described herself as “a hard-core, card-carrying Tennessee conservative” and “politically incorrect.”

She then attacked the “Republican majority in the U.S. Senate” for not overturning Obamacare, calling that “a disgrace,” and complaining that too many Republicans in the Senate “act like Democrats.”

The congresswoman then turned to her support of guns and opposition to abortion before stressing her support for Trump’s proposed border wall and the fact that she stands for the national anthem.

Blackburn’s video probably played well with the GOP base, an important fact given the state’s partisan bent. She is well-spoken and personable.

But she relishes the role of “bomb-thrower” and spends almost as much time complaining about those in her party as she does about Democrats.

That should tell you something about her message — and the limits of her appeal.

The question remains: Can Bredesen get enough usually Republican voters to believe that he is a truly independent Democrat, or will he be buried under an avalanche of GOP attacks?

I don’t know the answer yet. We will all learn more as the contest develops. Keep watching.