Phil Bredesen and Democrats’ Long-Shot Effort to Win Back the Senate

Is Bredesen a breakthrough Senate candidate for Democrats in a very red state, or just 2018’s version of Evan Bayh? Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Today’s big polling news was a new survey from Middle Tennessee State University showing former governor and Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen with a ten-point lead (45/35) over U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn in the race to succeed U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who is retiring.

What makes this remarkable, of course, is that Bredesen is a Democrat running in a state that Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2016 (for that matter, Mitt Romney carried it by 20 points in 2012). And his almost-certain GOP opponent, Blackburn, is a member of the House leadership team, and is also a favorite of hard-core conservative types.

Aside from high name ID based on his many years of visibility in Tennessee politics, Bredesen probably benefits from the fact that he’s been out of office since 2011 and has never worked in Washington, thus making him a very experienced “outsider.” In his two terms as governor he maintained a reputation as a moderate and fiscal disciplinarian (especially in shoring up the state’s troubled TennCare health program). The MTSU poll shows him winning solidly among independents and even picking up 20 percent of self-identified Republicans.

Bredesen’s margin in the new poll is surprising, but the idea that this race would be highly competitive is not. A Gravis poll in December showed the Democrat narrowly leading Blackburn. The Cook Political Report has rated the contest as a toss-up from the moment Bredesen announced.

Other election wizards are more skeptical: Both Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball still rate the contest as Likely Republican. Perhaps they are reminded of the trajectory of 2016 Senate hopeful Evan Bayh of Indiana, a widely known, electorally successful comeback candidate who looked like a very good bet to flip a Senate seat from the GOP. In the late going, though, the partisan dynamics of an insanely polarized election year caught up with Bayh and he wound up losing by nine points. Something similar could happen to Bredesen.

But as we have seen in a variety of off-year and special elections last year and this year, even the reddest of states are not immune from the voter backlash against the party controlling the White House, which is almost certain (according to historical norms) to continue through November, particular if Donald Trump’s approval ratings continue to stay below 50 percent. Bredesen is wealthy enough to self-finance a robust campaign, and while Blackburn is reasonably popular among Republicans, the Tennessee GOP has always had some regional and ideological divides.

The possibility of a Democratic pickup in a state like Tennessee (as in Alabama last year, and in Mississippi in a special election in November) has enhanced the once completely unimaginable prospect of a Democratic takeover of the Senate in the midterms. Aside from these shocking southern-fried opportunities, Democrats have a reasonably strong chance to flip Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona (and depending on John McCain’s health, there could be two seats up this fall in the latter state). Even Texas, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke is posting astonishing fundraising numbers in his challenge to Ted Cruz, isn’t entirely off the table.

The large number of Democrats running for reelection in states that have been trending Republican still means it’s more likely the GOP gains rather than loses Senate seats in November. But a lot of those vulnerable Democrats were supposed to lose in 2012, too. So for the Donkey Party, the emotionally satisfying prospect of Mitch McConnell ending his career without a gavel is not just a fantasy.

Phil Bredesen and Prospects for a Democratic Senate