Trump becomes 'X-Factor' in 2018 TN U.S. Senate race

Updated: Jun. 5, 2018 at 10:46 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs in November, and Tennessee is a battleground state.

A dozen candidates have filed for the Senate race but Cook Political Report says the contest between the two frontrunners is "too close to call."

Former Governor Phil Bredesen has come out of political retirement to face U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn. They're running hard for the seat now held by Bob Corker, who chose not to seek re-election much to the dismay of Republican leaders.

There's an "X-Factor" in this hotly contested race, the 45th President of the United States. Donald Trump came to Nashville on Tuesday, May 29 to rally for Rep. Blackburn and did the honors introducing her.

"The next United States Senator from the great state of Tennessee, a very, very early supporter of ours and a really wonderful woman, she loves your state, she loves your country, she's going to win, Marsha Blackburn!"

If there's any Trump love lost in Tennessee, it's news to Marsha Blackburn. Fifty-six percent of Tennessee adults approve of the job Trump is doing, according to an NBC News poll in April.

Blackburn told the crowd at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium, "Tennessee needs a Senator who is going to support President Donald Trump and I'm going to be there to stand with President Donald Trump and take your Tennessee values to Washington, D.C. to fight with him to get the job done."

The 8-term U.S. Representative from middle Tennessee has locked arms with Trump, who won 60 percent of the Tennessee vote in 2016.

Some of the Tennessee Trump faithful turned out for the rally as the President went on the attack against Blackburn's opponent, former Governor Phil Bredesen.

"He's an absolute total tool of Chuck Schumer," the President asserted. In an interview weeks before the Trump/ Blackburn rally, former Gov. Bredesen already had a counter punch for the expected GOP attack.

"Anyone who watched me as Governor would know I'm the least likely person to be a reliable vote for the Democratic Party or for Chuck Schumer or anyone else," Bredesen said to WMC5 before marching in the Strawberry Festival parade in Humboldt, TN on May 11.

During interviews with both Senate front-running candidates, a Bredesen TV commercial and Blackburn's campaign announcement via her website, the President's name kept coming up.

"Look, I'm not running against Donald Trump. I'm running for a Senate seat to represent the people of Tennessee," Bredesen said in his early TV spot.

Blackburn hammered home her allegiance to the Trump administration in her announcement video: "I believe in President Trump's immigration ban and I'll fight with him every step of the way to build that wall,"  Blackburn announced.

Blackburn has been among Trump's fiercest defenders. She signed a letter nominating the President for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on North Korea and Iran.

In our interview, Blackburn defended her support for a Nobel for Trump this way, "He's bringing a brutal dictator to the table. This is something no one thought would happen. The Iran deal is something else that is going to get a fresh set of eyes if you will and look at how that impacts us," the Representative said.

WMC asked Bredesen if he could support a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump.

"Let's see if he has any success with Iran or North Korea first," Breseden said. "But I do think in both those cases, North Korea and Iran, we're stuck in a circular thing. The President has done something to try and get us out of that treadmill and made some progress."

Blackburn, 65, has won eight terms in Congress after one stint as a state senator from Middle Tennessee. She's an anti-tax proponent of smaller government.

Check marks on the website 538 that tracks Congressional voting shows Blackburn agrees with President Trump more than 90 percent of the time.  A small business owner, Blackburn runs a Williamson County marketing firm.

Now among the House GOP leadership, Blackburn made a partisan pitch announcing her Senate candidacy last year.

"I'm Marsha Blackburn. I'm a hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative. I'm politically incorrect and proud of it," the graduate of Mississippi State University said.

During our interview, Bredesen, a Harvard University alumnus, declared he's been an independent voice in the Democratic Party.

"I'm a member of the Democratic Party. It's an organization, not a religion. For me, there were plenty of times as Governor that I stood up against something I thought I didn't like."

Bredesen, 74, served two terms as Tennessee Governor and before that, two terms as Nashville Mayor when he brought the Titans and Predators to Music City.

Before serving in office, Bredesen founded Health America Corp, and after the state House he started a solar energy firm that attracted a 44 percent stake from Shell Oil. In 2006, Bredesen became the first Governor in Tennessee history to win all 95 counties.  In 2016, Trump carried  92 of those same counties.

This will be a tough fight any way you cut it. No Democrat has won statewide since Bredesen did it in 2006. But because Bredesen won that victory with support from independents and some Republicans --- Blackburn knows she faces a tough challenge.

At the start of our interview, Blackburn laid out why she got in the Senate race: "I'm running because the US Senate is completely dysfunctional and what it is in need of is some good, positive, conservative change. And I'm going to be a catalyst for change so that the Senate will act like the majority they are. So that they'll get things done that Tennesseans want done and get them over to the President's desk."

Why he was running was WMC's first question to Bredesen, who expressed his concerns about hyper-partisanship in Washington.

"I've just become concerned over the last several years that we're not getting anything done in Washington. Everyone is off in different corners of the room yelling at each other and throwing brbrickbatsWhen I was Governor, I worked real hard to do things in a bi-partisan way. I think every major thing we got done had lots of votes from both sides. I just felt it was the best and highest use of me at this point in my life to try to be one of the people who's fixing this," 
the former Governor said.

So Blackburn pledges to be a solider for Trump and Tennessee Conservatives while Bredesen says he'll be an independent thinker among Democrats who'll oppose his party when appropriate and do what's best for Tennessee.

The race is on as Blackburn plays her Trump card and Bredesen counters with a poker face. They're both ALL IN!

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