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Tennessee Senate election, polls: Phil Bredesen looks to flip



Phil Bredesen talks with a supporter at a campaign event on October 27.
Bredesen talks with a supporter at a campaign event on October

Eliza Relman/Business

  • Phil Bredesen, a popular former Nashville mayor and Tennessee
    governor, is running for US Senate as a centrist Democrat. 
  • In one of the most competitive Senate races in the country,
    the Democrat has rejected his party’s national leadership and is
    banking on voters’ trust in his long record to carry him to
  • As the “resistance” movement hopes for a blue wave next week,
    their savior may well be a 74-year-old white man who hates
    calling himself a Democrat. 

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Phil Bredesen speaks in the calming tone
of a doctor explaining a complicated diagnosis to a

But in his case, the former businessman, mayor, and two-term
Democratic governor now running for the US Senate is tasked with
diagnosing the ills of a nation — and he’s proposing a
particularly unpopular medicine.

The cure? Centrism. 

Bredesen has long prided himself on his ability to build
consensus and make deals, and he feels compelled to bring that
skillset to a bitterly divided and dysfunctional Washington — to
restore “the mechanics of government” by pursuing compromise and
rejecting partisan rhetoric. 

“This is the highest and best use of me,” Bredesen said in an
interview on Saturday of his campaign against GOP Rep. Marsha
Blackburn for retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s seat in deep-red

The popular former governor has made what should be an easy
Republican win in a state President Donald Trump swept by 26
points into one of the most competitive Senate contests this
cycle — and one that could very well determine control of the

As the “resistance” movement hopes for a blue wave next week,
their savior may well be a 74-year-old white man who hates
calling himself a Democrat. 

Lynn Moss, a 66-year-old retired teacher, has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, but says she doesn't trust Blackburn and Trump.
Moss, a 66-year-old retired teacher, has voted for both Democrats
and Republicans, but says she doesn’t trust Blackburn and

Eliza Relman/Business

‘The best Republican governor’

Bredesen’s boosters are quick to point out that he won all 95 of
Tennessee’s counties in his reelection campaign as governor eight
years ago and was jokingly nicknamed the “best Republican

And while Bredesen’s support is certainly not as far-reaching as
it once was, it’s hard to find a Blackburn voter who will say a
bad word about him. 

“Phil Bredesen has actually done a lot of really great things
here in Nashville,” Sam Cook, a 28-year-old physical therapist
who’s voting for Blackburn and is a strong supporter of Trump,
said at a fall festival in Franklin last Saturday. 

Bredesen is counting on a good number of Republican voters —
particularly those in the business community — to buck their
party this year.

Corker, a close friend of Bredesen’s, has called him “a
very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business
person” who has “real appeal” in the red state — comments that
earned the senator a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch

Bredesen is unapologetic in his centrism. He insists that all the
most important legislation in modern history (he names Social
Security, Medicare, and the Voting Rights Act) was made possible
because of bipartisan support. And he’s rejected big policy
ideas emerging on the left, including Medicare for All and
eliminating the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. 

“When someone says something like abolish ICE, my
reaction is that’s a stupid idea,” Bredesen said in an interview.
He says he’s not ready to support a single-payer healthcare
system yet. 

“He’s not all one side or all the other. He knows that you have
to negotiate,” said Walt Murphy, 79-year-old former high school
headmaster who’s supported Bredesen since his years as mayor.
“It’s time that we have some sanity in this country.”

Some other Democrats running for office in the state are
mimicking Bredesen’s approach. Justin Kanew, a Democrat and
former contestant on “The Amazing Race” running for Blackburn’s
seat, is framing himself as a “bridge builder” looking to unite a
divided country.  

“I think it’s really time to get back to listening to each
other,” Kanew said in an interview in Franklin on Saturday. 

Most progressives concede that Tennessee doesn’t present a real
opportunity to win by expanding the base. There simply aren’t
enough young voters, people of color, and other left-leaning
groups to pursue that path. And the state has grown increasingly
conservative in recent years — its congressional delegation went
from majority Democratic in 2010 to majority Republican, while
its state legislature has solidified a GOP super majority. 

Patrick Green, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and a
former bus operator, said that while he’s in favor of more
progressive policy solutions, including single-payer healthcare,
he wants Bredesen to stop the bleeding first.  

“The most critical is that we don’t continue to roll back the
protections that are in place,” Green said. 

But Democrats insist their base is energized and will turn out in
greater numbers than any past midterm election. 

Jasper Hendricks, a 2013 Democratic candidate for the Virginia
House of Delegates who moved to Nashville 18 months ago, said
he’s been encouraged by initiatives like HUSTLE, a new grassroots
text-distribution tool progressive activists are using to
connect with voters, particularly millennials and those new to
politics. Hendricks added that people are ready to make their
voices heard.

“It’s been a pretty long last two years for some people,” he

The polls are already open in Tennessee, and
turnout is approaching
presidential election-year levels.
While it’s unclear what this will mean for either candidate, it’s
obvious that voters are engaged. 

Jasper Hendricks, a Nashville resident originally from Farmville, VA, at a Bredesen event.
Hendricks, a Democratic activist originally from Farmville, VA,
at a Bredesen event.

Relman/Business Insider

“I waited in line for an hour and they had a bell that they ring
for first-time voters and the thing was ringing almost every few
minutes,” Jeff Yarbro, a Democratic state senator from Nashville,
said of his early voting experience last week.

Escaping — and embracing — national politics

While Bredesen has done his best to distance himself from the
national party and Democrats in Washington, Blackburn, like so
many Republicans running in red states, has wrapped herself
around the president. 

During the candidates’ two debates, Blackburn did her best
to tie Bredesen to Hillary Clinton — whose name she mentioned
about two-dozen times in both debates — and Senate Minority
Leader Chuck Schumer.

Blackburn appeared to benefit from Supreme Court Justice Brett
Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings, even though
Bredesen ultimately said he would have voted to confirm

“I’m not gonna call it a circus, but it was very unfortunate what
went on up there,” said Ron Deese, a 60-year-old Blackburn
supporter who voted for President Barack Obama twice. 

Meanwhile, Bredesen has said he wouldn’t support Schumer if he
goes to Washington — despite the fact that Schumer’s PAC has
poured millions into the race on Bredesen’s behalf — and tried to
bring attention to hyper-local issues, including the scourge of
invasive Asian carp in West Tennessee.

And he’s tried to remind Tennesseans of his long record in the
state. He held a campaign event last Saturday at Nissan Stadium
in Nashville on the 20th anniversary of his successful effort to
bring the NFL’s Tennessee Titans and the NHL’s Nashville
Predators to the state. 

But many see national issues and tensions as inescapable in the
current moment. 

“One of the things that’s changed about politics is that
everybody is responding to the same national cable network news,”
said Yarbro. “So the language of various sides gets brought in,
regardless of whether it has to do with anything on the ground.”

A voter registration table at a Bredesen campaign event on October 27.
voter registration table at a Halloween-themed Bredesen campaign
event on October 27.

Relman/Business Insider

Like many Democrats in red states, Bredesen wants a bigger tent
and a shift away from identity politics.

He takes issue with what he sees as the party’s abandonment of
its core goal of expanding economic opportunity for working and
middle-class Americans, in favor of polarizing social issues
that, however important, appeal to smaller segments of the
party’s base.

“I think we’ve gotten too elitist about things, I think we’ve
gotten too narrow about the definition of what it is to be a
Democrat,” he said.

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