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Tennessee Dems Trounced By GOP, Despite High Midterm Hopes

Lukasz Stefanski
123rf Stock Photo

Tennessee Democrats began their Tuesday feeling like they had their best chance in years to regain some political clout in their conservative state.

Those aspirations quickly disappeared, as voters turned out in droves largely to give President Donald Trump a stamp of approval and echo much of what Republicans touted on the campaign trail.

From the U.S. Senate to the governor's office to the statehouse, Republicans were able to fend off key Democratic challengers, despite running in a year that was expected to see a large swell of progressive voters across the country.

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn delivered the biggest blow to Democrats by handily defeating their popular former governor, Phil Bredesen, in a Senate bid to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who had frequently clashed with the president.

One reason for the Republican success, according to a wide-ranging survey of Tennessee voters, was that voters were pleased with how things are going under Trump.

AP VoteCast found that slightly more than half of Tennessee voters said the country is on the right track, compared with a little less than half who said the country is headed in the wrong direction. Roughly six in 10 Tennessee voters said they approve of the job Trump is doing, and about four in 10 said they strongly approve.

Tennessee voters were also happy with the country's economic outlook, with 75 percent saying the nation's economy is good.

AP VoteCast is a nationwide survey of about 138,000 voters and nonvoters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.

The high-profile U.S. Senate race attracted national attention, as control of the chamber hung in the balance. Ultimately Tennessean voters chose Blackburn — who proudly aligned herself Trump at every opportunity — over Bredesen.

In her victory speech, Blackburn thanked Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who made their third visits to Tennessee on Sunday to boost her. She said she will be a leader who will "work with the president and keep this nation on the path to prosperity that we are on today."

Bredesen had hoped his moderate approach to the open position would be enough to sway independent and GOP voters his way. It was the first time the Democrats had nominated a competitive candidate for the seat in recent years, with many gambling that Bredesen's statewide popularity and willingness to stray from his own political party could outpace Blackburn's Republican favorability in a growing GOP-dominant state. Bredesen was likely the only Democrat who would have had a shot in the contest.

By early Tuesday evening, those hopes were quickly dashed. Blackburn emerged as the victor not long after Republican businessman Bill Lee was named the winner against former Democratic Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in his bid to be the state's next governor.

The wins trickled down to the statehouse, where Republican supermajorities looked safely intact. State Senate GOP Speaker Randy McNally declared a clean sweep for Republicans in his chamber's slate of elections, and House Republicans looked on track to hold their ground.

Voters also were firmly interested in immigration, which became a rallying call by Blackburn and Trump down the midterm homestretch. In the survey, voters considered immigration and health care important by about a quarter each, the economy (2 in 10), and terrorism and gun policy both less than 1 in 10.

Bredesen hinted at his possible loss in an interview just days before Tuesday's election, pointing out that he disagreed with the direction of the national Democratic Party.

"If I lose, I think it will just be because the national Democratic brand is a problem in general for me," he said. "I think my party is at its best when it gets out of this elitist stuff."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini said in a statement on Wednesday that candidates made gains in the state by narrowing margins significantly in races that haven't been competitive in decades.

She said the party still has work to do, "but there is no doubt that now we have a stronger foundation upon which to build."

Democrats made no gains in the nine races for the U.S. House of Representatives in Tennessee, including three open seats retained by Republicans.

All six House incumbents cruised to victory to maintain the party breakdown status quo: seven Republicans, two Democrats.

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