Tennessee Senate

Tennessee Senate: The Primary That Wasn’t

The deadline for candidates to file to run in the August primary closed last Friday, and one of the surprises is that a competitive primary on the Republican side of this open-seat contest to succeed retiring GOP U.S. Sen. Bob Corker failed to materialize.

When Corker announced his retirement last September, it appeared that Republicans would host the kind of establishment v. conservative primary that has become all too common in Senate races. It appeared that the contest would be between U.S. Rep. Steve Fincher, representing the more establishment wing of the party, and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is carrying the conservative banner. There was likely to be a third candidate, probably former state Rep. Joe Carr who ran in the 2014 primary against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, taking 41 percent, would run as the anti-Washington conservative outsider. Carr decided to seek a vacant seat in the state Senate instead. Fincher announced in February that he would not run and encouraged Corker to rethink his decision to retire.

Once the dust cleared this week, Blackburn is the only first-tier candidate left standing. She is getting a minor challenge from truck driver Aaron Pettigrew. A number of other candidates filed, but were either disqualified for not filing enough valid signatures (only 25 are required) or were eliminated by the state Republican Party for failing to meet the party’s criteria.

Blackburn and her campaign deserve credit for both winnowing the field and for the way it dealt with Corker as he considered getting back in the race. The campaign quietly collected endorsements and then rolled them out through the period Corker was taking another look at the race. These endorsements included Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, 18 of 28 state Senators and 56 of 74 state Senators. Former Gov. Don Sundquist, Alexander and Corker have subsequently announced their endorsements of Blackburn.

Now that Blackburn has a clear path to the nomination, she can focus on the general election, which won’t be as easy as the state’s heavily Republican tilt might suggest. Democrats recruited the strongest possible candidate in former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who served from 2003 to 2011 after serving eight years as mayor of Nashville. Bredesen pulled primary challenges from two perennial candidates.

Bredesen doesn’t come across as very partisan, and while his views on issues are largely in line with those of his party, it will be hard to demonize him as a Nancy Pelosi/Hillary Clinton liberal. By all accounts, Bredesen is coming out of retirement because he believes is in a unique position to help break the hyper-partisanship that has paralyzed the Senate. As a former Mayor and Governor, strategists say that he has a long history of problem solving and working across the partisan aisle.

While Corker has endorsed Blackburn and contributed to her campaign, he has said that he will not campaign against Bredesen. In an interview with National Journal, Corker had nothing but kind words for the Democrat. “I certainly do not plan to be working against somebody who is a friend and who has served our state ably,” Corker said. “We’ve worked together to build a great state.” He added that Bredesen is “a very substantial person … And he no doubt will attract a lot of Republican votes.”

While many Republican observers of Tennessee politics contend that the state has become too Republican to allow for a competitive race, the polls say otherwise. There have been eight surveys conducted since Corker announced his retirement: Bredesen was ahead of Blackburn in five of them with leads ranging from two to 10 points while Blackburn had the advantage in three with leads of between five and 11 points. The most recent poll, a Middle Tennessee State University survey (March 22-29 of 600 registered voters), showed Bredesen ahead of Blackburn, 45 percent to 35 percent. According to the poll, Bredesen had a 45-percent to 33-percent advantage among independents, while 20 percent of Republicans said they would support him compared to 5 percent of Democrats who said they would back Blackburn. President Trump’s job approval rating was 50 percent.

A WPA Intelligence poll (R) for the Committee to Defend the President (February 13-15 of 500 likely voters) had Blackburn leading Bredesen, 44 percent to 39 percent. Blackburn’s positive/negative ratings were 40 percent to 26 percent while Bredesen’s were 46 percent to 17 percent. A Triton Research poll (IVR) for the Tennessee Star (January 21-23 of 1,003 likely voters) gave Blackburn an 11-point lead over Bredesen. The pollster did attribute some of Blackburn’s lead to an undersampling of African-American voters.

Both candidates are formidable fundraisers and have put together first-rate campaigns. This should continue to be a very competitive race.