ANALYSIS | In the year of the moderate, this former governor may hand the Senate to the Democrats
Conor Lamb’s special election win sent a shrill alarm sounding through the Republican party, one that’s waking the GOP to the realization that its smallest threat is actually its most dangerous: the centrist Democrat.
After a tumultuous political year characterized almost entirely by drama and American division on a deep philosophical level, it seems this year’s midterm elections are breathing new life into the vision of the moderate.
With eyes on Congressional seats, a handful of politicians ready to straddle the fence and lend a hand to both sides are busy wooing the voter wearied by the nation’s raging ideological warfare. These candidates are Democrats who are ready to shrug off the hard-line, left-wing rhetoric that sent many an American scurrying to the contentious antithesis offered by Donald Trump in 2016. In its place, as incentive to return, there's now a message of reasonable Democratic policy and thoughtful judgment. It’s a plan that has a good chance of working for the House, and it could very easily work for the Senate, where the path to the majority is incredibly wide. The GOP currently holds a mere 51 seats over the Democrats’ 49.
From Tennessee’s rolling hills comes one such politician, with the intent of filling the Senate seat Republican Bob Corker will leave this year. And in so doing, he’s threatening to unravel the already loose hold of the Republican Party on the Senate’s majority.
Soft-spoken and well-mannered, the Volunteer State’s former governor Phil Bredesen isn’t 2018’s typical Democratic lawmaker. In Bredesen, there’s no Elizabeth Warren left-wing tenacity or inflammatory Nancy Pelosi-style proclamations. Rather, he remains resolute in his branding as an old-school southern Democrat, one that’s quietly anxious to work alongside Republicans. Bredesen is set on being, as one voter put it, “Republican-lite”—precisely the kind of Democrat that succeeds in Tennessee, a state that historically goes for centrist politicians.
Certainly, the longtime politician and businessman has built for himself a track record of bipartisan policy-pushing. After serving two terms in the Nashville mayor’s office, he was elected by a large margin to the seat of governor, where he sat until his term limit pushed him into the private sector. Since then, he's been at the helm of Silicon Ranch Corp., a solar energy company. During both government tenures, Bredesen gained the respect of Tennesseans for his ability to reach across party lines to craft policy. Nevertheless, he’s the last Democrat to have seen statewide victory in Tennessee. That was almost twelve years ago during his reelection—but he won every single county in the state and smashed the record for most gubernatorial votes in Tennessee history.
Following Corker’s retirement announcement last year, Senate Democrats saw in Bredesen an opportunity to make a serious stride towards recapturing the majority they lost in 2014. According to the New York Times, Bredesen was “courted personally” by Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as well as other Democratic governors-turned-senators in D.C.—and presented with poll numbers predicting a solid number of votes—before making the decision to enter the race.
Thus far, his campaign has stayed close to the tried-and-true Bredesen brand and retained a voter appeal similar to that which proved successful in winning Corker his congressional seat. But Trump’s election changed much about the way politics are conducted, and it remains to be seen whether the same tactics will work for Tennessee voters.
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of the 7th district, her party’s likely nominee, is taking an approach she thinks will be effective in the state. She's billing herself in large part as an instrument of the Trump administration, and she's betting on the Tennessean MAGA base to push her towards victory. Her platform framing is based on data: all but three of the state’s 95 counties voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and he claimed over 60 percent of Tennessee’s popular vote.
But Bredesen doesn’t see the driving ideals behind his own campaign as incompatible with those of the average Trump voter. He pointed to the overlap in voters for both businessmen.
“Tennessee likes Donald Trump, but by the very numbers…there have to be hundreds of thousands of people who voted for me and for Donald Trump,” Bredesen told Lee Clarion in a sit-down interview. “So I don’t think a Trump voter has lost interest by any stretch of the imagination. I think there are obviously some people who are never going to vote for somebody who has a ‘D’ after their name, but that’s a relatively small minority.”
Indeed, political commentator and media consultant Steve Gill told the Tennessee Star that it will take an increase in voter turnout for Blackburn to take the win.
“In East Tennessee, for example, a strong base of Republican voters will almost certainly help [Blackburn] move more of the undecided voters into her column than will end up in the Democrat Bredesen’s fold next November,” Gill said. “If Democrats turn out that base like they did in the Alabama Senate race, then the key for Blackburn to keep a ten-plus margin lies in getting voter turnout among the GOP base—and especially the Christian voter base that doesn’t get as motivated in non-presidential years.”
Polls have maintained little in the way of indicative consistency, but polling might not tell us much, anyway. The presidential election served to cast serious, unprecedented levels of doubt on the credibility of polls. And Tennesseans who are happy with the presidential election results may be more prone that usual to staying at home this November—a dangerous possibility for Blackburn. Tennessee’s infamously low voter turnout (hint: the state has the lowest in the nation) could serve to propel Bredesen to the Senate.
Getting the Millennial vote could very well be beneficial to Bredesen, too—though motivating the younger generation to go to the polls may be easier said than done. According to The Tennessean, “less than 10 percent of eligible voters between the age of 18 and 25 showed up at the ballot box” in Nashville's last mayoral election. Whether that lack of voting desire will continue to this year's midterms remains to be seen. But Bredesen says he’s got plenty to offer the young generation—an age bracket that often feels neglected, or even antagonized, by the Republican Party.
“Millennials have come to a political age at a time in which Washington is dysfunctional,” Bredesen explained. “The government needs to get back to some semblance of just doing its business. Pass budgets. Find compromises on important issues—the way things work. That’s always been one of my strengths. When I was governor, I was known for not entering into hyper-partisan wars, and most every major legislative accomplishment I had, we accomplished with significant numbers of Republican votes. We worked hard to make that happen.”
One of his main focuses is in decreasing the national deficit, a burden he says young people shouldn’t have to shoulder. Indeed, throughout his campaign, Bredesen has touted his experience in handling financial crises—particularly in handling of one of Tennessee’s largest economic disasters, TennCare. This issue was, perhaps, the hallmark of his tenure as governor. TennCare, the state’s expanded version of Medicaid, was bankrupting Tennessee by drying up desperately needed funding and costing the state $8.5 billion.
After long periods of trying different approaches, Bredesen ended up disenrolling more than 200,000 people from the program in favor of providing full coverage for kids and economic stability for the Volunteer State. This strategy was something voters expected from his 2002 Republican opponent, Rep. Van Hilleary, during the gubernatorial race, but in the end it came from the Democrat they wound up electing. It didn’t matter: Tennesseans loved it, and they loved Bredesen.
“What I’ve found is that most every problem—the right solution picks different parts of the big ideas in different parts of the political spectrum,” Bredesen said. “And you’ve got to find a way to meld them together and find some common ground.”
Regardless of what seat he’s held, Bredesen’s focus did consistently seem to lie in improving the economy of his state, not in pushing leftist policy he knew wouldn’t fly in deep-red Tennessee. Instead, while he was mayor, Bredesen completely revamped the Nashville downtown area (which was, at the time, more than ripe for such a project) and boosted industry by bringing in the Nashville Predators and the Tennessee Titans. He established a massive Dell distribution center, added teachers to schools and built a vast public library. All this he did with the dexterity of a man used to running things in business and an enterprising spirit that indulged free markets.
That's not to say it's all business for Bredesen—there are a few social issues he thinks could use the golden centrist touch. One of them is DACA, which he said gets tied by both parties to separate issues. “You know, Trump won’t hear about it unless he gets money for his wall, and the Democrats won’t hear about it unless you get rid of the lottery system,” said Bredesen, noting he thinks the country’s moral obligation is being lost in the political fray despite overall American support for the program. “They’re American in every sense of the word. They speak English. This is their home. The notion that you would take these kids and put them in the position to ship them off to some country they don’t even know—it just seems to be outrageous. It isn’t Christian. It’s not the way you should treat a human being. I think that problem has got to be solved so that they can be given some stability.”
If he gets the Senate job, Bredesen said he doesn’t plan to spend his time in the Capitol building opposing the White House. “I’m not, in any sense, running against Donald Trump. He’s the president,” he said, eyes slightly narrowed as if he considered the idea preposterous. He maintained, though, that there are “some things about the way [Trump] conducts himself” that he doesn’t care for. “I think what I need to do is try to address the issues that he’s put on the table,” he said.
On the other hand, Bredesen doesn’t see Marsha Blackburn's approach lining up with the job they're both applying for. Neither does Bob Corker, who Bredesen described as a friend. Corker, a Republican, recently announced his decision to withhold his endorsement of either party's candidate in the race.
“I see [the position] as a check and balance. I certainly don’t see the job the way that Marsha does, as though the job is just to support somebody no matter what it is they do,” Bredesen said. “It’s kind of a collapse of the very effective three-branch government system.”
It's this sort of thoughtfulness that has helped Bredesen make a name for himself as a principled Democrat, one with a penchant for doing what's best for his state. Conor Lamb's Pennsylvania election has already shown that this type of characterization could very easily be the ticket to success for the Democratic party.
Tennessee, in November, may prove itself to be a microcosm of a larger issue, one that has been written about in myriad op-eds and one that shows up in the president's approval ratings: Trump's base may be fragmenting. The alluring American ideal of unity and national strength may be drawing Republicans to look for lawmakers who are willing to meet halfway, no matter what party they belong to. GOP voters in Tennessee are now left to decide if that's worth putting Democrats in charge of the U.S. Senate.
In the end, Bredesen doesn't think it should be all that complicated.
“I don’t have any musings that I’m going to get elected and it’s going to change Washington or anything like that,” he said, shaking his head. “I really do believe, though…in getting out of these shouting matches and in finding compromises.”