NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn won a grueling, expensive contest Tuesday to become the first female U.S. senator from Tennessee, keeping a key midterm seat under GOP control.
The congresswoman defeated Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen by closely aligning her bid with President Donald Trump, who drummed up support for her during three visits to the state that he won by 26 percentage points, including a rally alongside Vice President Mike Pence in Chattanooga two days before the election.
“Now, you don’t have to worry if you’re going to call me congressman, or congresswoman, or congress lady. Now, senator will do,” she said in her victory speech. Blackburn calls herself congressman, not congresswoman.
Her win represents a rightward shift from the GOP senator she will replace, Bob Corker, who fell in line with Tennessee’s historical preference for more-centrist senators and at times was a vocal critic of Trump.
Blackburn worked to undermine Bredesen’s popularity and reputation as an independent thinker by tying him to national Democrats at every turn. She rarely diverged from Trump, and touted his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and tax cuts while blasting Bredesen’s opposition to both. She backed Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court the same day Trump nominated him, and criticized Bredesen for taking so long to say he would have supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation as well.
Blackburn thanked Trump and Pence in her victory speech and 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.” She said she will work to confirm more constitutional judges, decrease taxes, limit regulation, oppose abortion, protect gun rights, get federal spending under control and build the border wall.
First elected to the House in 2002, Blackburn aligned with the tea party movement and regularly appeared on Fox News. She opened her campaign by dubbing herself a “hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative.” Before that, she made a name for herself as a state lawmaker who helped lead the revolt against a proposed Tennessee income tax in the early 2000s.
The $85 million-plus race set a state record in spending by candidates and outside groups, gaining national interest because of its potential implications for the GOP’s slim majority in the Senate.
Pop superstar Taylor Swift even broke her political silence for the Tennessee contest when she went on Instagram to endorse Bredesen and encourage people to vote.
“I just really want those young people to know how important it is to the future of our country that you not get discouraged, that you stay engaged and you never, ever, ever give up,” Bredesen said Tuesday night.
Blackburn took aim at Bredesen for donating to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and receiving campaign checks from high-profile Democrats. Although Bredesen largely kept his distance from other well-known Democrats, Blackburn had no qualms bringing Trump and fellow national Republicans to Tennessee.
In her victory speech Tuesday night, Blackburn thanked her supporters, saying a lesson from this campaign was that Tennesseans didn’t want leaders “who are not going to kick a can down the road on the issues that affect our nation.”
She welcomed in Pence three times. The president’s son Eric Trump, and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina also came along for separate campaign events.
Voters like Cody Wheeler in the Nashville suburbs were skeptical about Bredesen’s promise to independents and Republicans that he wouldn’t toe the party line in Washington.
“I had a hard time believing his campaign,” said Wheeler, a 30-year-old Blackburn voter from Williamson County. “With Marsha, you knew what you were going to get.”
Corker, the outgoing senator, had backed Blackburn but refused to campaign against Bredesen, whom he considers a friend. Corker briefly heard out pleas from some peers last winter that he reconsider retirement, prompting a Blackburn spokeswoman to say anyone who thinks she can’t win the general election is a “plain sexist pig.”
Afterward though, she managed to consolidate support across the GOP’s various political circles, including from former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, who briefly opposed her in the primary and called for Corker to run again upon dropping out of the race.
On Tuesday night, she was happy to claim a piece of Tennessee history for women in the Senate.
“And just imagine this: It is a conservative woman to boot,” she said to loud applause.