Katie Strickland is a freshman honors student studying International Studies and Political Science at the University of Arkansas. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Katie is a Bodenhamer Fellow as well as a member of Delta Delta Delta and the Associated Student Government.
The state of Tennessee is anything but complicated in its political alignments. One glimpse at ballot counts following the 2016 presidential elections indicates a crimson stronghold within the state, with 92 out of a total of 95 counties voting by considerably large margins for Donald Trump. However, a deeper look into Tennessee’s political history reveals a much bluer past: Tennesseans have elected three times as many Democrats than Republicans to be governor. Clearly, for the state’s upcoming U.S. Senate election, precedent does little to inform on how this hotly debated race may swing.
Two major candidates are vying for the Senate seat left by the retiring Senator Bob Corker: Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn. Both have succeeded in large-scale races before, with Bredesen formerly serving as the state’s 48th governor and Blackburn currently serving as the U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s seventh district. Nevertheless, the two candidates present two differing approaches to advertising what each brings to the national table for Tennesseans.
In 2006, Phil Bredesen won all 95 counties in his gubernatorial re-election, a clear sign of his statewide popularity. He now hopes this sentiment has remained as he attempts to represent the state in the nation’s capital. His slogan “Working Together” emphasizes the bipartisan tone he has assumed, wishing to appeal not only to his normal Democratic base, but also to moderates whose votes he had previously gained to win almost 70% of the vote in 2006. However, criticism has come from both sides of the aisle because of his attempts to breach partisanship. While Republicans have painted Bredesen as the political recruit of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), people from Bredesen’s own party have not always approved of his less-aligned views, such as his opinion on the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Meanwhile, Representative Marsha Blackburn is not receding from the views of her party; rather, she emphasizes her position as one of President Trump’s most consistent supporters. Running on the platform of “Tennessee Values First, Tennessee Values Always,” Blackburn presents herself as a soldier fighting for Tennessee on Capitol Hill. A stark contrast to incumbent Senator Bob Corker, a Republican notoriously dissident of some of Trump’s policies, Blackburn runs a risk by taking such an affirmative stance on the President. While she could alienate moderate voters who wish to see a more bipartisan approach to the position, her passion for the Republican Party and firmly outlined agendas could motivate and mobilize voters who have been missing a senator who aligns strongly with the President they elected.
Geographically, Tennessee has Democratic strongholds in its urban areas and majority-minority communities (as evidenced by the three blue counties in the 2016 presidential election). However, the major unknown variable will be the large red patches covering the rest of the state. It is difficult to predict if moderates there will choose to maintain the red wave or if the tides will shift to more blue leanings. Complicating the issue is the fact that voter participation is typically lower during midterm elections. If voters, especially moderates, do not feel passionate about a certain candidate, they may not even cast a ballot, removing this influential electorate sector.
If Marsha Blackburn is elected, she will provide a bolstering force for President Trump’s agenda in the Senate and become the first Tennessee woman elected to the Senate. If Phil Bredesen is chosen, he will become the first Democratic senator from Tennessee in almost thirty years. Tennessee is not the typical Southern state, and this Senate race, while currently pointing in Marsha Blackburn’s favor, could still swing either way, making it one of the most unpredictable in the nation.