Firebrand Marsha Blackburn retains Tennessee Senate seat for GOP

Holly Bailey

In a blow to Democrats’ hopes of regaining a political foothold in the South — and to their dream of claiming majority control of the U.S. Senate — Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn defeated former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in Tennessee’s closely watched Senate race.

Blackburn, a six-term congressman (her preferred term) from the Nashville suburbs, becomes the first woman elected to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, filling the seat of Sen. Bob Corker, a moderate Republican who opted to retire last year after repeated clashes with President Trump.

A conservative firebrand and a regular on cable TV news, Blackburn had campaigned as a committed Trump ally, even more so than many other Republican candidates this year. “People want to have a U.S. Senate that’s going to support the president,” Blackburn told voters. “I will stand with President Trump.”

Bredesen had been viewed as one of the Democrats’ best hopes in the party’s quest to regain majority control of the Senate. Even though he was running in a decidedly conservative state where Trump won by 26 points two years ago, Bredesen, a political centrist and former mayor of Nashville who served two terms as governor, ran an extremely competitive race by pointing to his bipartisan record and willingness to work with all sides, including Trump, to solve Washington gridlock.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks to supporters after she was declared the winner over former Gov. Phil Bredesen in their race for the U.S. Senate Nov. 6, 2018, in Franklin, Tenn. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks to supporters after she was declared the winner over former Gov. Phil Bredesen in their race for the U.S. Senate Nov. 6, 2018, in Franklin, Tenn. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

One of the most popular public figures in state history and the last Democrat to be elected statewide, Bredesen led much of the early polling and kept the race deadlocked almost until the very end, thanks to support from GOP moderates and independents.

But Republicans began to unite behind Blackburn amid the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Bredesen broke with many in his party to say he would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh, but he waited until the day of the Senate vote to say so. Blackburn accused Bredesen of waiting to gauge how the vote would ultimately go before announcing his decision, and used the chaos of the hearings to remind Republicans that a vote for Bredesen was a vote for a Democratic majority — an argument that was apparently enough to win over moderate Republicans who had been backing the former governor because they deemed Blackburn too conservative.

While Republicans in many tight races kept their distance from Trump, Blackburn touted her fierce loyalty to the president and campaigned with him three times, once in Nashville and twice in the eastern part of the state, where she was lesser known and had struggled to turn out the vote. And amid a heated debate over gun control, she touted her support of the Second Amendment, telling voters about the pistol she packed in her purse.

Describing herself as “hard core” and “politically incorrect and proud of it,” Blackburn embraced her reputation as a conservative firebrand. “I know the left calls me a wingnut, or a knuckle-dragging conservative,” she told voters. “And you know what? I say that’s all right, bring it on.”

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