On Thursday, residents of the Volunteer State went to the polls to vote in statewide primary elections. It’s been a raucous campaign season, but, as we head into the final stretch before the November general election, there’s a silver lining: we’re almost done.
Here are the official party nominees for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House. (Incumbents underlined)
Governor: Bill Lee (R) vs. Karl Dean (D)
U.S. Senate: Marsha Blackburn (R) vs. Phil Bredesen (D)
U.S. House, District 1: Phil Roe (R) vs. Marty Olsen (D)
U.S. House, District 2: Tim Burchett (R) vs. Renee Hoyos (D)
U.S. House, District 3: Chuck Fleischmann (R) vs. Danielle Mitchell (D)
U.S. House, District 4: Scott DesJarlais (R) vs. Mariah Phillips (D)
U.S. House, District 5: Jody Ball (R) vs. Jim Cooper (D)
U.S. House, District 6: John Rose (R) vs. Dawn Barlow (D)
U.S. House, District 7: Mark Green (R) vs. Justin Kanew (D)
U.S. House, District 8: David Kustoff (R) vs. Erika Pearson (D) or John Boatner (D)
U.S. House, District 9: Charlotte Bergmann (R) vs. Steve Cohen (D)
I have six major takeaways from these results.
1. Trumpism is alive and well… just not as much as you might think
Every Republican running for higher office tried to align him or herself with President Donald Trump, whether in specific policy or general rhetoric.
Bill Lee, the Republican nominee for governor, has built his family’s small HVAC business into one of the most successful in the state. He did a far better job than Trump in portraying himself as a champion of the working class; recent ads show Lee welding, while a long-form video describes his days working as a farmer.
Lee has compared himself to the president more directly in other ways, presenting himself as a conservative political outsider ready to bring fresh ideas to the state, who believes his time in business has set him up for success. The Lee Company is a much smarter, more successful (albeit smaller) business than the Trump Organization, so there’s actually a case to be made here. That bodes well for Lee’s electoral chances.
On Friday, Trump officially endorsed Lee for the general election.
Other candidates for governor tried to emulate the president’s behavior rather than tout similar managerial credentials. Clearly, this did not work as well as they might have hoped.
Randy Boyd, another businessman running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, with experience serving in outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet, used ads to attack his opponents. Boyd also featured ads showing him as a physically strong, fit person who does not grow tired from constant campaigning, an attack Trump used against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Boyd was not afraid to pull the “fake news” card, calling a poll putting Bill Lee on top “fake,” “deeply flawed” and “bogus,” arguing it was a “publicity stunt” by Lee to over-inflate his chances of winning. I thought this would spur him on to a well-fought victory, but my prediction was way off — Boyd lost to Lee by more than 12 points.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican, also used attack ads frequently, employing them against Boyd and Lee. Boyd attacked back, a lot. Boyd used a Trumpian nickname, coining the outgoing member of Congress “D.C. Diane,” claiming she didn’t back her promises and routinely put Washington’s interests above those of Tennessee.
In Lee’s defense, business professionals often donate to candidates of all political stripes, depending on whom they might need to build a relationship with down the road. It’s just what you do, as Trump himself has espoused.
Even state House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican who also ran for governor, got in on the mudslinging. She described her opponents as acting like children while she, the only adult, gets the work done. Harwell denied the ad was meant as a slam on her opponents, arguing it was meant primarily as a joke.
Lee called out his opponents without naming them and set the facts straight on his opinions. With a president in office who prefers to escalate conflict at even the slightest provocation, Tennessee voters might simply be tired of the constant rough-and-tumble oppositional politics.
Getting a thumbs-up from the White House doesn’t guarantee victory, even in a Republican primary — just ask Diane Black. Ignoring Haslam’s plea for the Trump administration to stay out of the race, Vice President Mike Pence endorsed Black anyway, hoping to push her candidacy across the finish line in a tight four-way race. Black’s campaign touted presidential soundbites, where Trump says she “came through” for him, but it wasn’t enough. Ultimately, she finished in third.
2. Karl Dean must copy Bredesen’s playbook to stand a chance
Even if Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, loses the Senate race to Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, in this starkly-conservative state, one thing is undeniable: he has run a squeaky-clean campaign inclusive of all Tennesseans. Bredesen has become painfully centrist to the point it’s even upset me. However, despite my frustration, I realize playing to the moderates is the only way a Democrat can win statewide office in Tennessee. In the gubernatorial race, Karl Dean should take the same approach to have the best chance at winning.
Like Bredesen, Dean is an old face making a return to political life. He served two terms as Nashville mayor before taking a breather from politics.
In his political ads, Dean hasn’t really talked as openly about issues as Republicans have. That’s a smart move — his goal is to show he can work with Republicans as well as he works with Democrats. By targeting potential voters in “the forgotten Tennessee,” he plays on the contempt of people who feel their town, vote and existence don’t matter to state and national politicians.
However, I believe it is in Dean’s best interest to escalate these views to the level Bredesen already has. Dean must go out of his way to find nice things to say about conservatives and do more to paint himself as someone who will put all of Tennessee first.
The Republican Governors’ Association called Dean “just another left-wing, big-government politician who will break his promises, dodge accountability and raise taxes.”
Dean’s response: “As long as they keep an open mind, that’s Washington politics for you… I’ve done it in a nonpartisan position, and I believe I can do it statewide.”
That’s a pretty good comeback if you ask me.
Even now, it appears we could be headed for a hotly contested gubernatorial race. RealClearPolitics had the race listed as a “toss-up” prior to the primary election, albeit with Diane Black, not Bill Lee, as the Republican Party nominee.
I am curious to see new polling pitting Lee against Dean, but I’m not expecting the numbers to be substantially different than the Black-Dean match-up. It’s incredible for the Democratic nominee for governor of Tennessee to even be within single-digits of the Republican nominee, but Dean still has work to do if he wants to close the gap entirely.
3. The Senate race will go down to the wire
I’ve discussed the Tennessee Senate race before, but now that the primaries are concluded we have new data to explore.
In the Democratic primary, Bredesen won handily with 91.5 percent of the vote. In the Republican primary, Blackburn fared well, but not quite as well as Bredesen, winning only 84.5 percent of the vote. Her most successful primary opponent, Aaron Pettigrew, a truck driver who raised a grand total of $0 in campaign funds, received more than 112,000 votes. Is that a pool of voters Bredesen can siphon away from the Republicans? Maybe, just maybe. Blackburn might prove too audacious for some old-fashioned conservatives, although most Republicans will likely back their nominee, regardless.
Now, it must be said many more Republicans voted in their respective Senate primary than Democrats did in their own primary: more than 723,000 on the Republican side to just more than 380,000 on the Democratic side. But this could be due to the contentious Republican gubernatorial primary bringing many of that party’s voters to the polls. Democrats, for their part, had few contested primaries of their own, giving them less cause to turn out.
4. There’s little room for change in U.S. House seats
No matter the results of the more high-profile elections, it’s just not realistic for Democrats to count on Tennessee as they try to take back the U.S. House for the first time since 2011. The state’s congressional districts are simply too gerrymandered to provide for competitive elections.
Tennessee currently sends two Democrats and seven Republicans to Congress’ lower chamber. To send a third Democrat would require a major upset. Four Republican incumbents are running for re-election. The remaining three Republican-held districts are safely red, incumbent or not.
5. Republicans will keep control of the state legislature
Just as with the state’s House delegation, seeing the Tennessee General Assembly turn blue is a liberal pipe dream. At the state level, the best Democrats can hope for is getting Karl Dean in the big mansion… and that’s about it.
Tennessee’s state government has been a Republican trifecta since 2011, when Gov. Bill Haslam took over. Before then, Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen faced a Republican majority in the state House and Senate. Seeing a Democratic majority in either legislative chamber would require staggering policy change by one or both parties. And that just won’t happen between now and November.
6. Diane Black might reach the U.S. Senate… in 2020
This, of course, is pure speculation, but we can’t overlook Tennessee’s other U.S. Senate seat. That position is currently occupied by Sen. Lamar Alexander, a 78-year-old Republican who is up for re-election in 2020. A former governor, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of education, a two-time presidential candidate and, now, U.S. senator, Alexander might have accomplished all that he can in his long political career.
Should Alexander decide to retire at the end of his current term, it could create an opening for Diane Black. 2020 is a presidential election year, meaning Black might ride the coattails of Trump voters at the polls — if Trump runs for re-election and if Alexander doesn’t.
It’s fun to consider the possibilities, but I still assume Alexander himself will run for re-election in 2020. If he doesn’t, outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam might be the first Republican in line to replace him, anyway. Sorry, Diane. ■