Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: In a deeply red state, a blueprint for Democrats

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, September 23, 2018

As the state of national politics devolves into tribally structured warfare, statewide elections have become easy to map along party lines. A mere 12 states have both a Democratic and a Republican senator; within states that voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Democrats occupy a scant 11 of 60 senate seats. Democrats running in GOP strongholds could not be blamed for electoral fatalism — in deep Trump country, it seems unfathomable that a candidate from Hillary Clinton’s party could surpass her 2016 results.

In Tennessee, however, former Gov. Phil Bredesen has emerged as a formidable Democratic candidate. Bredesen, 74, is returning to politics after a seven-year hiatus following his gubernatorial tenure from 2003 to 2011. Running for Sen. Bob Corker’s vacant seat, Bredesen has pulled from the playbook used by Alabama Senator Doug Jones to coalesce support across a broad base of the Tennessee electorate. He has set an example for red state Democrats — focusing on proximal issues should supersede political haggling over one’s fit in the national conversation.

Bredesen — who recently polled five points ahead of his Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn — is an ideal Democrat for a deep red state like Tennessee. Trump won the state by 26 points, and Republicans have a 28-5 seat advantage in the Tennessee Senate. However, Bredesen has not written off these voters: “there have to be hundreds of thousands of people who voted for me and voted for Donald Trump,” he said in April.

As a former governor, Bredesen entered this race with substantial name recognition within his state. He neither needs nor wants endorsements that would connect him to national Democrats. Much like Jones’ campaign in Alabama, Bredesen has avoided rhetoric that would transpose his campaign onto the national stage. “I’m not running against Donald Trump,” he said in a television commercial, which has proven to be a common refrain during his electoral bid.

Candidates like Bredesen occupy a complicated niche within the increasingly progressive ideology of the Democratic party. He is a centrist Democrat, with a pro-business reputation as governor — further bolstered when he moved into the private sector upon exiting the governorship. He understands the political benefits conveyed to moderate Democrats in the South. “People here support a get-it-done centrist,” he said in a September interview with New York Magazine. “A generic Democrat would not have much of a chance in a Senate race here.” And while his moderate record and support from Republicans would not appeal to his party’s national coalition, it’s perfect for Tennessee, where no Democrat has won a statewide race since Bredesen’s re-election in 2006.

By branding himself as a “get-it-done Democrat,” Bredesen encapsulates the political strategy Democrats ought to employ in red states. Rather than trying to neatly fit into the contemporary Democratic ideological spectrum, Bredesen frames the race within statewide parameters. At town halls and stump speeches, he does not mention Trump. Instead, he focuses on legislation to regulate the pharmaceutical industry in a state that has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. He discusses his plans to fix the problems caused by Asian Carp, an invasive species that has choked Tennessee’s waterways. And he expends more political energy on the Tennessee Valley Authority than he does on any national issue.

Conversely, Congresswoman Blackburn has eagerly adjoined her campaign to the fate of the GOP at large. A Tea Party stalwart, she forged her conservative bona fides as a taxation hawk in the state senate. Following her election to Congress in 2004, she has fortified her hardline stances on the national stage — a made-to-order Obama critic during his administration and a Trump loyalist since the early days of his campaign. On the campaign trail, she constantly mentions Trump — reflective of her Congressional record, where she votes with the president 91.7 percent of the time.

Her right-wing views comport with her constituency. Blackburn hails from Tennessee’s 7th district; nestled between Kentucky and Alabama, it is the most conservative region of the state. This area is home to the state’s wingnuts, like the state senator who proposed the notorious “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Her rhetoric is as divisive as her policy; a regular fixture on cable news, Blackburn echoes the conservative grandstanding typical of Fox News.

In contrast to Bredesen’s focus on statewide issues, Blackburn’s combative conservatism and devout adherence to Trump delimit a divergent campaign strategy. While Bredesen treats the presidential surname as taboo, Blackburn is gluttonous in her invocations of the president. “Tennessee needs a senator who’s gonna support President Donald Trump,” she said at a September rally. “I am going to be there to stand with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.”

But her middling poll numbers suggest that at a time of intense dissatisfaction with Congress, national narratives do not dictate statewide elections. Though Tennesseans have wholeheartedly rejected national Democrats, the former Governor has found traction by intentionally distancing himself from the party — he has rightfully framed a statewide election around statewide issues. And as Bredesen gains in the polls, he proves that hypercompetence remains a better political strategy than merely activating partisan identities.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.