Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn campaigns Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, at a cafe in Brentwood, Tenn. Blackburn is strongly embracing President Donald Trump as she claims the Republican nomination for Tennessee's open U.S. Senate seat. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Limited success for candidates favoring Trump in Tennessee

August 03, 2018 - 11:47 am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Basking in the afterglow of an emphatic Republican primary victory Thursday in her bid for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn proclaimed it a victory for the agenda of President Donald Trump, a statement from Tennessee voters that they want to give him their full support.

"We know that what Tennesseans say that they want to see in their next senator is somebody who is going to stand with President Trump to finish the agenda that they voted for when they elected him," she said.

But the Republican primary for governor tested the limits of her theory.

In that race, U.S. Rep. Diane Black began as the favorite, made multiple appearances with the president and left no room for opponents to outdo her devotion to him. She won the endorsement of Vice President Mike Pence and basked in warm comments from Trump at every turn — though Trump stopped short of a formal endorsement.

Black finished third.

Nashville resident Diane Dimel said Thursday that she voted for Trump in 2016, but no longer supports him or the candidates he favors.

"When I saw all those ads for Diane Black with President Trump, that was one where I was like, 'Well, I am definitely not going to vote for her,'" said Dimel, who added that she now regrets her vote for Trump.

Not everyone had lost faith. Robert Crowell, 69, of Nashville, said he voted for Black and other candidates who agree with Trump on issues like having a strong national defense and protecting America's borders.

"I just go with the ones that agree with the president," he said.

Meanwhile, support for Trump seemed to help in the Senate race, where Blackburn touted Trump's wall-building immigration crackdown and his U.S. Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh.

Blackburn, who could become the state's first female U.S. senator, will face former Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the general election. Bredesen walked a careful line throughout the campaign, saying he would support the president on policies that are good for Tennessee and oppose him on those that aren't.

Bredesen's bid could breathe life into a depleted Democratic Party in Tennessee that hasn't won statewide in more than a decade — not since he did it himself in his 2006 re-election bid. It's been even longer for Tennessee Democrats to succeed in Senate races. The last to win was former Vice President Al Gore in 1990.

Tennessee voted for Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016, but Bredesen's continued popularity and pledge of independent thinking have kept polls close in the contest to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker. The race could run up record campaign spending as Democrats anchor their hopes to break the 51-49 Republican Senate majority in the red, Southern state.

Blackburn and Bredesen have long campaigned like their matchup was inevitable. Easy primary wins Thursday just made it official.

The Bredesen playbook has been put to use in the governor's race as well, where Democratic former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean touts himself as a leader who can break down partisan barriers and work with a Republican legislature during divisive political times. He easily won a primary contest Thursday.

Dean faces businessman Bill Lee, who emerged from a bruising, $45 million-plus Republican primary as the race's only self-described "conservative outsider" and the candidate who most emphasized his Christian beliefs. Lee embraced Trump's agenda during the primaries but did not enjoy the connections to the president that Black did.

In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump threw his support to Lee in the general election contest for governor.

The four leading candidates tapped into an unprecedented $40 million of their personal wealth.

The Republican nominee from Franklin tried to avoid the fray and the $7 million he spent was a third of that of Randy Boyd, the second-place finisher. Lee declined to take overt swipes at his opponents while they savaged each other in attack ads, at times targeting him.

Bredesen and Dean would need to peel off support from moderate Republicans and independents in the red state.

Blackburn bills herself as a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative." She has benefited from center-stage appearances alongside Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in public events and fundraisers in Tennessee.

Pence and Trump have already attacked Bredesen, saying he's too liberal for Tennessee and would fall in line with Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Bredesen has countered that his record as governor shows he's an independent thinker who won't cave to party leaders.

Bredesen has separated himself from Trump on several policies, most notably on tariffs, which threaten an estimated $1.4 billion in Tennessee exports, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a longtime Republican ally. The exports are linked to more than 850,000 jobs in the state related to farming, steel, baked goods, car manufacturing, whiskey distillers like Jack Daniel's, and more, the chamber said.

Blackburn has tried to distance herself from the White House carefully on tariffs amid a heightening trade war. She asked the commerce secretary to reconsider broad tariffs to avoid harm to Tennessee's economy. She has expressed "grave concern" about the tariffs, but said she appreciates the administration's goal of punishing bad actors like China.

Blackburn has opposed Corker's proposal to require a congressional vote on tariffs issued in the name of national security, a move that fellow Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander supports.

Tennessee has a history of electing centrist senators. Corker, for one, has further complicated the race by saying he's supporting Blackburn but won't actively campaign against Bredesen, whom he has called a friend.

Corker also has publicly tussled with Trump, once saying the president had turned the White House into an "adult day care center." Trump tweeted in response that Corker "couldn't get elected dog catcher in Tennessee," and Corker endured booing at a Trump-Blackburn rally in Nashville this spring.

Haslam, the popular two-term governor, threw his backing behind Blackburn at a campaign event Thursday, telling her supporters that the race is about control of the Senate.

Money shouldn't be a problem for either Senate candidate. Heading into July, Blackburn maintained an early 2-to-1 cash advantage over Bredesen, with $7.3 million in her bank account. But Bredesen would be one of the wealthiest members of Congress if elected, and he has already loaned $3.5 million of his own money to his campaign.

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Sheila Burke in Nashville contributed to this report.

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