MUNFORD, Tenn.—Driving on the back roads of western Tennessee it's hard to comprehend how the state is part of the 2018 midterm battleground. Looking at the yard signs and bumper stickers, you wouldn't even know there was a Democrat running against Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn.
Enter Phil Bredesen, the state's former two-term governor who energized party officials at their annual fundraising dinner this summer with a promise to end the party's "dry spell" in Tennessee, where the last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate election was Al Gore in 1990. Bredesen gave the party good reason to regain hope. His easy 2006 reelection is the last time a Democrat won a statewide election. He also was able to enter the race with nearly universal name recognition, and is incredibly wealthy, which has allowed him to pour just over $7.5 million of his own money into the race. He also was ahead in the polls throughout the summer, making Tennessee the rare must-watch red state on the election map not because an incumbent Democrat is trying to survive, but because Democrats had a chance to win a seat in Trump country.
The road map for Bredesen's victory is two-fold. First, Bredesen has to narrow the gap in Republican dominated parts of the state, peeling off voters disappointed with the state of politics who may be willing to give their former white male governor a chance. Second, he has to drive up turnout in the state's deep blue pockets such as Shelby County, which contains Memphis and was just dominated by Democrats in a summer election that was pointed to nationally as a sign of a coming blue wave.
Convincing Republicans to cross party lines and energizing a base don't always jive together.
In Memphis on Monday night just before a free concert put on by the Bredesen campaign, I spoke with Jeanne Richardson, a former member of the state legislature who viewed herself as its most liberal Democrat when she was in office.
Richardson lives in the Memphis area and said voters there were disgusted with Bredesen's announcement that he would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court if he was elected, a confirmation question Bredesen complained there was "no politically good answer" to. Volunteers reportedly quit working for the campaign after the announcement, with one woman saying she "felt torpedoed" by his Kavanaugh decision.
Bredesen's decision was viewed as a political calculation by the campaign, that the damage done with the liberal base would have been far outweighed by the damage that would have been done with conservatives if he came out against Kavanaugh. This view was confirmed when secret recordings captured his campaign staff explaining the calculation.
Richardson, who will vote for Bredesen because she thinks his opponent is "evil," was one of those disillusioned voters, but she went to Monday's rally hoping to get energized.
"It's all I can do to be just vaguely excited," Richardson said. "Look, he's our candidate so we're here. A lot of people feel this way."
Despite her acceptance of Bredesen as the candidate, Richardson couldn't contain herself from unleashing some criticism.
"Bredesen cut hundreds of thousands of people off Tenncare and a lot of those people died," Richardson said. Told that it sounded like she despised Bredesen, she said, "Well I can't say that, but did you hear what I just said?"
Bredesen himself didn't do much at the rally to reenergize voters who may have grown frustrated by his cautious centrist approach to campaigning.
The evening began with a concert by blues guitarist Keb' Mo and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, a frequent Trump critic who wore a Michael Avenatti-inspired "#Basta" hat during the set, which had the predominantly African American crowd on its feet by its close. Their energizing set was followed by a speech from Lee Harris, the African American who was just elected mayor of Shelby County as part of the party's sweeping election victories. He gave a rousing speech on Memphis regaining its political voice.
Then to the stage came Bredesen, who failed to mention a single political issue or even mention that he was a Democrat. He told the crowd that he was running because he has a "high school civics" view that our government should be run better. Without naming either, he seemed to put the blame on both President Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.
"It's not just the last two years, it's the last 10 years," Bredesen said. "Government has gotten more and more caught up in partisan politics and drawing lines in the sand. I want to help change that."
He followed that message by tamping down any expectations that he would be able to actually change Washington.
"I wish I could tell you that I could go there and a ray of sunshine going to come down and it's all going to be ok, but it's a lot more work than that," he said. "I don't know any better way to do it than one person going up there, putting an oar in the water, and trying to make change."
The message of the speech, viewed as a dud by some in the crowd, appeared to be geared less to the partisan Memphis crowd Bredesen was speaking to than to the rural voters he’s trying to lure across the aisle.
Marsha Blackburn, his Republican counterpart, doesn't think Bredesen's pitch to conservative voters is going to work, and she is taking a much less cautious approach in her campaign for their vote.
In a Monday speech to a packed room of supporters in Munford, a small town of about 6,000 people just north of Memphis, Blackburn didn't shy away from any issues. The Kavanaugh confirmation, the migrant caravan headed to the border, building the border wall, cutting more taxes, defeating ISIS, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the roaring economy were all on the agenda. She didn't talk about working with Democrats, but rather about getting more Republicans elected so Trump’s agenda could be put into effect. She took her time railing Bredesen on the Kavanaugh vote.
"It took my opponent 88 days to make up his mind on what he thought about Kavanaugh," she said. "After the vote was called, he put his finger in the air to see which way it was blowing, and decided he would have been a yes vote."
Blackburn was joined at the lunchtime event by Eric Trump, who similarly took aim at Democrats.
"The Democrats' message, if you synthesize it for the last four months, has been let's raise your taxes, let’s attack law enforcement, and let’s ban plastic straws," Trump said to laughter from the crowd.
Blackburn explained during an interview after the event that the race really started to break her way late last month when she debated Bredesen just as the Kavanaugh fight was in full force.
"I think there were three things: the debate, then Kavanaugh, then the Trump visit," Blackburn said. "So many people were waiting to see us side by side, see how the debates went before making their minds up. We started seeing the race break after the first debate."
Blackburn said she's never seen turnout for an event like Trump's Johnson City rally, where she says 92,000 people requested tickets. "You have never seen such a turnout, they were lined up all the way from the airport to the venue," she said.
Blackburn doesn't buy Bredesen's centrist act, arguing that nobody's forcing him to run as a Democrat, and he could have faced her in the Republican primary or ran as an independent if he wanted to. She also thinks he's running an "arrogant" campaign, pointing to his argument to voters that he'll be able to assess for himself whether a Trump proposal is good for Tennessee.
"People are offended by the arrogance of someone who says, ‘I will decide if I think Trump is doing something good for Tennessee, and if I think he's doing something good for Tennessee, then I'll vote for it.' This is the wrong message. People want you to do what they want to see done. I understand this race is not about me. It's about the people who were here today. I don't think he gets that, I think he thinks it's about him and the Democrat Party."
Trump won in Tennessee by 26 percentage points—about 650,000 votes. There are only three states in the country—Alabama, West Virginia, and Wyoming—where Trump has a higher approval rating than he does in Tennessee, according to a Morning Consult poll from last month.
Blackburn believes she's pulling away in the race because the people of Tennessee want a fighter, and Bredesen doesn't appear willing to be one.
"People know our country is in trouble," she said. "They don't want somebody who is go along to get along. They want a fighter."