Firebrand Marsha Blackburn retains Tennessee Senate seat for GOP

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 Donald 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.

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 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.

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Tenn. Senator Phil Bredesen
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Tenn. Senator Phil Bredesen
MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 26: (US TABS OUT, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER OUT) Producer David Foster (R) and the Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen (L) and his wife attend the 'Shower of Stars' Gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of St. Jude Children?s Research Hospital at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts April 26, 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 22: Tennessee State Governor Phil Bredesen (R) and his son Benjamin arrive for a dinner hosted by President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush February 22, 2004 at the White House in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its 2004 Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 23: State Governors, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas speaks as (L-R) Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Judy Martz of Montana, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, look on during a news conference February 23, 2004 after a meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its 2004 Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 23: State Governors, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (2nd L), Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (3rd L), Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (4th L), Jennifer Granholm of Michigan (5th L), chat as they walk across a street February 23, 2004 after a meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House in Washington, DC. The National Governors Association is holding its 2004 Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (left) and U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential candidate John McCain listen as they are introduced at a press conference at the Time Warner Media Center prior to the start of the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina, Sunday, May 27, 2007. (Photo by David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
JACKSON, TN - FEBRUARY 07: (L to R) Union University President Dr. David Dockery talks with Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen and FEMA Director David Paulison while touring Union University February 7, 2008, at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. A swarm of tornadoes torn through Arkanas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee leaving over 40 dead. (Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 13: American Idol contestant Melinda Doolittle is welcomed back to her home town with a big celebration that included Phil Bredesen the govenor of Tennessee and Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte presenting her with 'The Day Of Recognition Award' on May 13, 2007 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/American Idol/Getty Images for Fox)
UNITED STATES - MAY 14: Phil Bredesen, governor of Tennessee, speaks at an event at a new Volkswagen AG plant under construction in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., on Thursday, May 14, 2009. Volkswagen AG, Europe's largest carmaker, will build a bigger factory than planned in Chattanooga to take advantage of slumping set-up costs while U.S. competitors struggle to survive. (Photo by Chris Rank/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 14: Phil Bredesen, governor of Tennessee, speaks at an event at a new Volkswagen AG plant under construction in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., on Thursday, May 14, 2009. Volkswagen AG, Europe's largest carmaker, will build a bigger factory than planned in Chattanooga to take advantage of slumping set-up costs while U.S. competitors struggle to survive. (Photo by Chris Rank/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 08: Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen presents Singer & Songwriter Dolly Parton her star as she is inducteed into the Music City Walk of Fame, At Hall of Fame Park on November 8, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 08: Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen presents Singer & Songwriter Dolly Parton her star as she is inducteed into the Music City Walk of Fame, At Hall of Fame Park on November 8, 2009 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 22: (Exclusive Coverage; Premium Rates Apply) (L-R) Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Taylor Swift and Faith Hill attend Nashville Rising, a benefit concert for flood relief at Bridgestone Arena on June 22, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Fred Breedon/Nashville Rising/Getty Images for Nashville Rising)
NASHVILLE, TN - APRIL 27: Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen is shown prior to Game One of Round Two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, held on April 27, 2018, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Bredesen was mayor of Nashville when the NHL awarded Nashville the NHL franchise. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 20: Artist Jason Isbell, American politician and businessman Phil Bredesen and artist Benjamin Scott Folds are seen backstage at Marathon Music Works on August 20, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
HUMBOLDT, TN - MAY 30: Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate and former governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen speaks with guests at a groundbreaking event for a new Tyson Foods chicken processing plant, May 30, 2018 in Humboldt, Tennessee. Recent polling shows a close race between Bredesen and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The new $300 million plant is expected to open in late 2019 and employ upwards of 1,500 people. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sits in the new Volkswagen Passat during the press day for the North American International Auto show in Detroit, Michigan January 10, 2011. Volkswagen will build the new Passat in Chattanooga, Tennessee. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS POLITICS)
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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 2nd 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 wing nut, 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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