Phil Bredesen has a Kavanaugh problem.
There was a time when Bredesen, who is attempting to become the first Tennessee Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate since Al Gore, appeared to be a fairly safe bet to flip the deep-red Volunteer State for the Democrats.
Now, with less than a month remaining until election day, Bredesen is flailing, trailing his Republican opponent — Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn — by the largest margin yet.
A new poll by CBS News, released Sunday, finds Blackburn leading Bredesen by 8 percentage points among Tennessee voters, 50%-42%. That poll came on the heels of a Fox News poll that found Blackburn’s lead at 5 points, up from 3 points just three weeks earlier.
Blackburn’s surge coincides with the raucous fight to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a political environment in which there can be no middle ground — with moderates breaking with either liberals or conservatives to take sides — Blackburn appears to have the clear advantage in Tennessee.
Which probably isn’t too surprising.
Tennessee isn’t your typical “red” state. Voters here tend to be somewhat independent, resisting national trends and bucking norms. Yet, it’s still a red state for a reason; a reliably Republican state that has been growing steadily more conservative in recent years.
Bredesen is a centrist Democrat who remains extremely popular 8 years after leaving office as governor. During his 2 terms in office, he governed as a moderate, often siding with Republicans on important issues. To win the Senate race to replace Republican Bob Corker, he has relied on cross-over votes from moderate Republicans who fondly remember his days as the state’s governor. It has been a central theme to his television advertising across the state and is a strategy that has seemed to resonate with voters. Bredesen had a double-digit lead on Blackburn as recently as the spring, and led in almost every poll through the end of August.
But the Kavanaugh confirmation process has changed the game, both in Tennessee and nationally. Republican enthusiasm has surged, erasing much of the advantage that Democrats had in that arena. Perhaps unlike at any other point during the past 2 years, Republicans have coalesced around their controversial leader, President Donald Trump.
And a number of independents who were set to vote for Democrats like Phil Bredesen were so disgusted by the treatment of Kavanaugh by ranking Democrats in Washington that they’ve had a change of heart. I know because I’m one of them.
This Republican surge won’t be enough to stop Democrats from regaining control of the House of Representatives. But it matters to Democratic candidates like Bredesen — and to North Dakota incumbent Heidi Heitkamp, who was already facing an uphill battle against GOP challenger Kevin Cramer and now appears on the verge of defeat.
Suddenly, it’s a tough time to be a Democrat — even a moderate Democrat — in a red state.
Democrats and Republicans alike are attempting to seize on voter anger tied to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The Republicans won the battle with the judge’s 50-48 confirmation on Saturday, but Democrats are attempting to ride the wave of seething anger from their left-wing base to the ballot box, threatening to impeach Kavanaugh (which would prove almost impossible to do) if they regain control of Congress next month. Republicans, likewise, are seeking to capture the anger that mounted as sexual assault allegations were lodged against Kavanaugh, riding their own wave of momentum to the ballot box.
The result? Democrats’ strategy will work in blue states…but there are more vulnerable Senate seats in red states than blue states. Which means the GOP is now more likely than ever to retain control of the Senate, and Bredesen appears to be on the verge of becoming a victim in that Republican victory.
While Blackburn has been steadfast in her support of Kavanaugh from the beginning, Bredesen was silent on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, dodging the questions when asked. Finally, on Friday, as it became clear that Republicans had the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, Bredesen issued a statement. But it was a middle-of-the-road statement that attempted to appease both sides of the fight.
“I was prepared to say ‘yes’ to his nomination prior to Dr. Ford’s coming forward,” Bredesen said. “While the subsequent events make it a much closer call, and I am still missing key pieces of information that a sitting Senator has, I’m still a ‘yes.'”
However, Bredesen went on to sharply criticize Republicans in the Senate for their handling of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party 36 years ago.
“Dr. Ford is a heroine, and has brought forcefully into the national conversation the many barriers women face in reporting and dealing with sexual harassment and assault,” he said. “I was disgusted by the treatment she received at the hands of the Senate and am determined to help bring about a fairer and more respectful treatment of these issues.”
Bredesen’s attempt to thread the needle on the touchy subject appeared to cost him dearly with the voting base on either side. Conservatives, who were still cheering the fiery speech delivered by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), bristled when Bredesen said Ford was treated unfairly. After all, conservatives here and across America feel that the overriding issue in the confirmation fight was the way Kavanaugh was treated by Democrats in the Senate.
Meanwhile, liberal voters in Tennessee were incensed that Bredesen came out in support of Kavanaugh. His own party decided to throw the election campaign to the wind and issued a stinging rebuke. Mary Mancini, chairperson of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said in a statement, “Today, Governor Bredesen released a disappointing statement based on imperfect and limited information as a result of a flawed and secretive process.”
Bredesen has a Kavanaugh problem…and it now appears likely to cost him the Senate.