CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – When the Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice, the contentious process galvanized voters in Tennessee and heightened the stakes of an already close Senate race between Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Marsha Blackburn.
But while many Democrats in Washington and Tennessee vehemently opposed the confirmation of Kavanaugh after allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct during high school, the moderate Bredesen issued a statement that he would have been a Yes vote if he were a senator.
Tennessee is a solidly Republican state, voting for Trump by 60 percent in 2016, but Bredesen, a two-term governor, has run neck-and-neck with Blackburn, the congresswoman in the 7th District of Tennessee, in suburban Nashville and west toward Memphis. Throughout the race, Bredesen has pulled ahead in some polls.
Both are striving to fill the seat opened by Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, who is not seeking re-election.
Democrats see Corker’s seat as a possible win, crucial to flipping the Senate.
Bredesen has been campaigning on a message that he’s applying for a job, and that as a moderate he will be independent and a voice for civility at a time when U.S. politics has become downright cutthroat.
Blackburn asks asked voters to send her to the Senate to support President Trump’s agenda, taking a tough stand on immigration, for example. Trump has visited Tennessee twice to rally for her.
Neither campaign returned requests for comment.
Blackburn is seeking to connect Bredesen to the larger Democratic Party, particularly Northerners, such as Senate Minority Chuck Schumer of New York.
During the contentious process of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Blackburn challenged Bredesen’s silence on issue. On Sept. 28, for example, he issued a statement: “I have been clear from the start: I will always vote to confirm judges who uphold the Constitution. Obviously, Phil Bredesen will not make that commitment to Tennesseans because he’ll only vote when and how Chuck Schumer tells him.”
The day before the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh, Bredesen issued his own statement, calling Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s first public accuser, a heroine, and saying he was disgusted by the Senate’s treatment of her. Bredesen said a senator carrying out “advise and consent” responsibilities should leave partisanship behind and focus on the qualifications of a judicial nominee.
“I believed that Judge Kavanaugh initially met this test, and I was prepared to say ‘Yes’ to his nomination prior to Dr. Ford’s coming forward,” Bredesen said. “While the subsequent events make it a much closer call, and I am missing key pieces of information that a sitting senator has, I’m still a ‘Yes.’”
In response, MoveOn said via Twitter that it was pulling a campaign of video ads supporting Bredesen.
“We’re canceling a planned six-figure digital video ad expenditure for Phil Bredesen in Tennessee due to his Kavanaugh position,” MoveOn said.
MoveOn did not reply to a request for comment.
Carrying the attack, Blackburn accused Bredesen using his statement in support of Kavanaugh as a diversion, from his views on immigration and other policies.
“He thinks this will get him off the hook for his own sexual harassment problems,” Blackburn said, “but there’s no covering up the fact that he destroyed evidence regarding sexual harassment claims against his friends and political allies.”
Bredesen called Blackburn’s allegations a mischaracterization, saying he had a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment as governor, and initially had a policy of shredding the notes of harassment investigations to protect the identities of people coming forward. PolitiFact labeled Blackburn’s allegation against Bredesen half true.
Mary Mancini, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, downplayed the effect MoveOn had in the race, saying the Democratic Party in the state had a strong ground game.
However, she criticized Bredesen’s comments on Kavanaugh as “very, very disappointing.” He did not have access to the confidential FBI report that sat in the basement of the Senate building, she said. “Unless you have all the information in front of you, it’s really difficult to make that decision,” Mancini said.
Mancini added, however, that the ugly partisan warfare that characterized the Kavanaugh confirmation piled fuel onto the fire that has energized Democrats.
“Everything that Donald Trump does,” Mancini said, “everything that he says, everything that the Republicans do and say to attack our side really does have an energizing effect. So I expect there to be a huge turnout in Tennessee of Democrats as well as independents who are starting to say, ‘I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me.’”
Taylor Swift added her star power to the race this week, breaking her long silence on politics to tell her fellow Tennesseans to register to vote, that Blackburn’s “voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me,” and that she would vote for Bredesen.
If elected, Blackburn would be the first woman senator from Tennessee.
“She’s been a barrier breaker all of her life,” said Gillum Ferguson, press secretary of the Tennessee Republican Party. Ferguson said some voters pulled the lever for Trump in 2016 even though they disliked the man because of his promise to elect conservative judges.
“Democrats have been energized,” Ferguson conceded. “They’ve been energized since November of 2016 after Trump won. But now I think that that enthusiasm gap is starting to close with Republicans. Because I think this [the Kavanaugh hearings] put it in a very stark contrast what’s at stake.”
Federal judges are confirmed through the Senate, as are members of the president’s Cabinet.
In a recent poll of 1,002 registered voters conducted by CBS News and YouGov, Blackburn led Bredesen by 50 percent to 42 percent.
CBS News and YouGov conducted the poll from Oct. 2 to 5 – the days before the Kavanaugh confirmation vote – and 55 percent of respondents said “the matter surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court” made them more motivated to vote in the midterm election.
Of those who responded to a different question, 21 percent said they were more likely to consider voting for a Democrat if Kavanaugh was confirmed, and 20 percent said they would be more likely to vote Republican.
Early voting in Tennessee starts Wednesday, Oct. 17.