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Tennessee Senate race, polls: Attack ads, bitter protests define election



Rep. Marsha Blackburn meets a voter at a pumpkin festival in Franklin, Tennessee on October 27.
Marsha Blackburn meets a voter at a pumpkin festival in Franklin,
Tennessee, on October 27.

Relman/Business Insider

  • The battle between eight-term Republican congressman Marsha
    Blackburn and Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen over
    Tennessee’s Senate seat has become deeply divisive. 
  • Many Tennesseans point to the attack ads outside groups have
    released in a Senate race in which spending clocked in at a
    staggering $68 million.
  • The race has also featured two candidates with very different
    approaches to politics. 

FRANKLIN, Tennessee — The scene at a pumpkin festival in this
city’s downtown last Saturday was cheerful. Parents pushed their
stroller-bound toddlers dressed in Halloween costumes. Dog owners
paraded their costumed pets across a stage in the town

But the exurb of Nashville is ground zero for one of the
country’s most competitive, consequential, and nasty US Senate

At stake is retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker’s seat, over which
eight-term Republican congressman Marsha Blackburn and Democratic
former Gov. Phil Bredesen are locked in a tight battle. 

Blackburn strolled around the festival on Saturday morning,
shaking hands and chatting with supporters. Some 500 miles away,
a gunman opened fire inside the Tree
of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh
, killing 11 congregants in
the most deadly attack on the US Jewish community in decades.
Progressive Jewish groups called the anti-Semitic violence “a
direct culmination” of President Donald Trump’s — and the
Republican Party’s — rhetoric. 

You wouldn’t have known it from the mood at the pumpkin festival,
but Tennessee is suffering from the same deep political divisions
riling Washington and the nation. 

“People, regardless of their ideology, know that something in
American politics isn’t right at the moment,” said Jeff Yarbro, a
Democratic state senator from Nashville.

Divisive rhetoric and ‘ridiculous’

Tennessee hasn’t had a competitive state-wide political contest
since 2006, when Corker narrowly beat Democrat Harold Ford, Jr.
This year’s race is being fought through the prism of deep
national divisions. 

Many Tennesseans point to the attack ads both camps have released
in a Senate race in which spending clocked in at a staggering
. The most vicious ads have been bankrolled by outside
groups, including the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity on the
right and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC on the left.
The groups have poured $17.8 million into supporting Bredesen’s
campaign and $23.2 million into backing Blackburn’s,

The first thing that Dawn Van Ryckeghem, a 54-year-old swim coach
and Blackburn supporter, said when asked about the race is that
she’s been repelled by the “ridiculous” attack ads. 

“When I was younger, when my mom was younger, politicians had
respect for each other, they didn’t call each other names, they
didn’t do smear campaigns and they kept to the facts,” Van
Ryckeghem said between bites of kettle corn at the Franklin
festival on Saturday, adding that Trump is “spewing out hatred
and divisiveness.” 

Van Ryckeghem (left), a 54-year-old swim coach, said Trump is
“spewing out hatred and divisiveness,” but she’s supporting his
pick in the Tennessee Senate race.

Eliza Relman/Business Insider

  • In
    one ad
    , Americans for Prosperity accused Bredesen of
    supporting higher gas and sales taxes and spending lavishly on
    the governor’s mansion while he led the state through a budget
    crisis. Some of those claims are
    , according to independent fact-checkers.
  • A National Republican Senatorial Committee
    accuses Bredesen of
    shredding documents related to sexual harassment claims made by
    state employees while he was governor.
  • Fact-checkers also found that attack misleading, and Bredesen

    released a response ad
     in which former female colleagues call
    Blackburn a “liar.”
  • Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC ads accuse Blackburn of
    being a Washington insider who’s repeatedly voted to raise
    her own salary while stripping benefits from vulnerable Americans
    and being “bought and paid for
    by the opioid industry

“The ads this cycle are orders of magnitude worse, in terms of
nastiness,” said Josh Clinton, a political science professor at

He added that negative ads can depress enthusiasm and turnout,
particularly among independents and new or irregular voters, on
whom Bredesen is counting.

“So if you think cynically, that’s probably better news for the
stronger party in the state, which has a larger base,” he said.

‘Marsha Blackburn is a white supremacist!’

Perhaps the most unexpected attack launched in the race from
Taylor Swift,
who broke her political silence
by slamming Blackburn as
an anti-woman candidate who would undermine civil and human
rights. She encouraged fellow Tennesseans to vote for Bredesen
and Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper.

Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me,”
Swift wrote in
an Instagram post
of Blackburn. “These are not MY Tennessee

Exemplifying the deep tensions at play in the race,
anti-Blackburn protesters
a moment of silence for victims of the Pittsburgh
massacre during a Sunday rally in Nashville. As the crowd quieted
in respect for those who were killed by an anti-Semitic mass
shooter, a woman called out, “Marsha Blackburn is a white

Blackburn joined the crowd’s chants of “USA! USA!” as several
protesters were forcibly dragged out of the event by police. She
later called the demonstrators a “liberal angry mob.” 

Bredesen’s campaign also condemned the protesters, with whom it
said it had no association, and also accused Blackburn staffers
of disrupting Bredesen’s events. 

“It is a shame that people disrupted Congresswoman
Blackburn’s event and it is a shame that Congresswoman
Blackburn’s campaign staffers have been proudly screaming at 37
of Governor Bredesen’s events,” Bredesen’s press secretary,
Alyssa Hansen,
said in a statement to reporters


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

A clash of styles

Blackburn and Bredesen have different views on policy, but their
differing styles are particularly apparent in this race. 

Bredesen is understated, measured, cautious — what some call
boring. He largely sticks to policy, a strategic move — he would
lose cultural battles over guns, abortion, or protesting during
the pledge of allegiance. Meanwhile, Blackburn is a conservative
firebrand who’s doing her best to energize the GOP base for a
repeat of 2016.

Despite unbridled partisanship in Washington, Bredesen insists he
has “a high school civics view of our country” and is “pained” by
what he sees as “a government of people standing on opposite
sides of the room and shouting at each other.” He said that he’s
tried to engage as little as possible in political attacks. 

“I think it’s certainly appropriate to contrast yourself, but I
have not tried to correct or fight back on every single crazy
thing that comes of out these ads,” Bredesen said in a Saturday
interview. “I don’t want to run a campaign where the issues are
driven by the opponent. I like to talk about my own issues.”

Blackburn made her name on cable TV, is one of the most
conservative members of the House, and has become one of Trump’s
most loyal allies in that chamber, where she’s served since 2003.
She introduced her Senate bid last year by framing herself
as more conservative than the rest. Rep. Marsha Blackburn talks with a supporter in Franklin, TN on October 27.Rep. Marsha
Blackburn talks with a supporter in Franklin on October
Eliza Relman/Business

“Tennessee has never had a
Republican nominee as conservative or who is as much an
ideological warrior as Rep. Blackburn is,” said Yarbro, the
Democratic state senator.

But despite Blackburn’s full
embrace of Trump, many Tennesseans draw a distinction between the
candidate and the president. And the congressman herself
occasionally draws a line herself, conceding that Tennesseans
won’t always stand for his rhetoric. 

“There’s been a couple of times …
I’ve said we need to take a kinder approach,” Blackburn said in
an interview last Saturday. “This is the South and people have a
lot of respect for manners.”

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