MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) - Just weeks ago, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen was a bright light for a Democratic Party hoping to make inroads into conservative “Trump country” and secure a path to retake majority control of the U.S. Senate in November’s elections.
Polls showed Bredesen, the state’s 74-year-old former governor, in a surprisingly tight race with Republican U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn to replace retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker.
But momentum appears to have shifted against Bredesen in this closely-watched Senate battle despite the endorsement of pop star Taylor Swift and the rumblings of a Democratic wave. The Oct. 6 confirmation of President Donald Trump’s polarizing Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, injected new energy into Republicans, say Republican party leaders.
A New York Times Upshot/Siena College Poll last week showed Bredesen behind Blackburn by as many as 14 percentage points. That followed a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted Oct. 2-5 showing Bredesen trailing by eight points.
Bredesen is scrambling to rally in a fight that has drawn national attention. With Republicans holding a 51-49 advantage, Democrats need just two seats to take control of the Senate. But Democrats have a narrow path to a majority and must defend seats in more toss-up races than Republicans. Of the 26 Senate seats Democrats are defending, including two held by independents who caucus with Democrats, 10 are in states Trump won in 2016.
To get to a majority, many Democrats have placed their hopes on Bredesen.
Democratic activists have stepped up efforts to get Bredesen’s supporters, many of them newly registered, to vote ahead of the Nov. 6 elections - a concern in a state with the country’s lowest turnout in the congressional elections in 2014. Early voting begins on Wednesday.
Swift’s endorsement of Bredesen in her home state was credited with driving a surge in registrations of young voters last week. But Democrats say they worry the new applications may not be processed in time for people to take advantage of the early voting process.
What’s more, Bredesen’s opponent, Blackburn, is a staunch conservative backed by Trump in a state where the president remains popular with many Republicans.
“We’re going to win,” Blackburn, 66, said during a recent interview with Reuters, succinctly summing up her view of the race.
To succeed in a state Trump won by 26 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, Bredesen must be conservative enough to attract large numbers of Republican and independent voters.
Yet he also must sustain support from a Democratic Party whose base tilts leftward, particularly in heavily Democratic and African-American communities around Memphis and Nashville where he needs strong turnout.
“In a state as red as this, I need to put together votes in every place I can find them,” he said in an interview with Reuters.
Data from the state’s August Republican and Democratic nominating contests underscore his point.
Statewide, 211,000 Democrats cast votes in the 2018 primary, up 28 percent from 2014. Yet nearly twice as many Republicans, about 398,000, cast votes in the primary.
Bredesen’s path to victory is narrow, said University of Tennessee political scientist Katie Cahill. To win, he must garner nearly as many votes as he did when he ran for governor in 2006, or Blackburn must be significantly damaged by Trump’s loss of popularity among independents and some Republicans while Bredesen picks up those votes.
Bredesen has staked a centrist course. He opposes the idea of a government-funded healthcare system. He says he won’t support Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the target of many Republican attack ads.
He also broadly favors tax cuts for corporations - a generally Republican position - though he criticized last year’s Republican tax reform package, saying it did too little to help the middle class, worsened the deficit and had less impact on the economy than promised.
For the most part, he has avoided talking about Trump, although he has been critical of his trade policies and called the separation of migrant children from parents at the U.S. border “morally bankrupt.” And he’s not promoting the idea of a Democratic Senate takeover.
“If this gets to be a race about … a Democratic majority in the Senate, I’m in trouble,” he said.
To the frustration of other Democrats, he publicly supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
“It takes the wind out of the sails of those who’ve been trying to organize people on the ground under the guise that Bredesen is a progressive candidate - or at least a candidate that progressives can rally behind,” said Earle Fisher, a Memphis pastor and voter registration activist.
Bredesen’s stances have drawn mixed support from Democratic voters in Memphis, an old southern city on the Mississippi River known for its blues clubs and fraught racial history.
It is located in Shelby County, the state’s most populous, which is 53 percent African-American and was one of only two counties in the state to back Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Lakethen Mason, a branding and marketing consultant there, said he was turned off by Bredesen’s positions and might skip voting for a senator when he casts his ballot.
But Eunnice McNeil, who like Mason is black, said she did not really care that Bredesen had positioned himself to the right of many in his party.
“I’m a Democrat,” McNeil said. “I vote for Democrats.”
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Grant Smith; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jason Szep and Paul Thomasch