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The 2 must-watch races in Tennessee’s primaries, briefly explained

An unexpectedly heated Republican primary for governor and a long-shot Democratic bid for Senate.

Zac Freeland/Vox

Tennessee is solidly red. But the state has two important open races, one for Senate and one for governor, that Democrats think they have a shot — albeit a very long shot — at taking.

On Thursday, August 2, primary voters in Tennessee will go to the polls to decide their nominees for the closely watched governor and Senate races that will put President Trump’s brand of Republican politics to the test in November’s midterms.

Tennessee went for Trump by 26 points in 2016, and he has a 56 percent approval rating in the state. Republicans control the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, both US Senate seats, and seven of nine House seats.

Yet the state has a longer Democratic legacy than one would expect. A single party hasn’t been able to hold on to the governor’s mansion for more than two terms since 1869. With Republican Gov. Bill Haslam term-limited out of office, that’s a trend Democrats are trying to continue. And a quick scan of the Republicans who have been elected to statewide office — from Haslam to Sens. Lamar Alexander, a known bipartisan dealmaker, and Bob Corker, a once-fierce Trump critic — it’s easy to see a line of establishment, business-centric Republicans in Tennessee.

But the leading Republican candidates in the 2018 races are more Trump-like conservative firebrands — so much so that they’ve bristled some sitting Republicans in the state. Here’s a quick breakdown of the primary races that matter.

There’s a very expensive and close Republican race for governor

More than 30 names are set to be on the ballot Thursday for the state’s governor’s race. But the field of frontrunners is a much narrower six — four top-tier Republicans candidates and two Democrats — in a race that’s already cost more than $50 million.

Last year, Republican Rep. Diane Black was the clear frontrunner for the Tennessee governor’s race; now the Republican primary is a complete toss-up.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Republicans: The leading Republicans in the race are US Rep. Diane Black; state Speaker Beth Harwell; Knoxville’s Randy Boyd, a former Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner; and Bill Lee, a businessman from south of Nashville.

The Democrats: Two Democrats are running: former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, the clear favorite, and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

What’s the story? The excitement in this primary is on the Republican side of the aisle; a year ago, Black seemed the easy favorite for the race. But going into Thursday, the Republican primary is a total toss-up.

There’s not a lot of daylight between the top four Republican candidates; they’re all running very conservative, Trump-loving, anti-abortion, NRA-backing, “law and order” campaigns. Boyd, Black, and Lee also boast pretty significant fundraising numbers. Boyd leads the pack, having spent $21.07 million on the race; Black has spent $13.83 million, and Lee has spent just over $7 million but outraised the others in the final weeks before the election.

“They all check all the boxes; [the] three of them have a lot of money, name recognition, and experience,” Anthony Nownes, a political scientist with University of Tennessee Knoxville who has been watching the race closely, said. “It’s wide open.”

Vice President Mike Pence has endorsed Black, a backing she has been campaigning on heavily. The former chair of the Budget Committee during Republicans’ health care fight last year, Black has also focused heavily on pushing a Trump-like hardline immigration agenda. Though she was once the frontrunner, there’s no question that her ties to an unpopular Congress are taking a toll on her campaign — a harsh reality many congressional Republicans seeking higher office have already faced in their primaries.

The race to replace Sen. Bob Corker

When Sen. Bob Corker announced his retirement, winning an open seat in Tennessee became part of Democrats’ hopes for 2018.

Phil Bredesen takes a photo with guests at an event in Humboldt, Tennessee, on May 30, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn speaks during a rally in in Nashville on May 29, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Republicans: US Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Aaron Pettigrew, a trucker, is also on the ballot.

The Democrats: Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Also on the ballot are perennial candidate Gary Davis and Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe.

What’s the story? There won’t be any fireworks in Thursday’s Senate primary; Blackburn and Bredesen are expected to win their respective contests and face off in November. But this Senate race is worth keeping an eye on.

Democrats struck gold when they recruited Bredesen to run. A popular two-term governor from 2003 to 2011, Bredesen is running on bringing an independent voice to Washington. Tennesseans know his name, and he has support across the aisle.

Polling has been inconclusive. Most recently, an Axios and Survey Monkey poll found Blackburn leading by 14 points. But all previous surveys had Bredesen up by 5 points, and in May, a Vanderbilt poll found Bredesen was more popular than Blackburn. Though it will be a challenge, one Democratic campaign aide told Vox, it’s an attainable long shot.

“This is a significant lead for Bredesen, but it’s not a lock,” John Geer, a Vanderbilt University pollster, said then. “Partisanship could swing voters back in Blackburn’s favor and bring home the GOP base.”

But Blackburn hasn’t always been an easy sell to all Tennessee Republicans.

There’s a divide in Republicanism in the state that’s best demonstrated by the well-documented rift between Blackburn and Corker, the retiring senator who holds the seat Blackburn is running for. Blackburn is a hyperpartisan conservative firebrand seeking to fill a seat held by a pragmatic business-centric Republican who’s somewhat of a fish out of water in the Trump era.

Blackburn announced her candidacy with a strong “down with the establishment” message, tying herself closely to Trump and attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Corker for being weak Washington insiders. Corker has called Bredesen a “friend,” saying he wouldn’t campaign against him and only offering a tepid endorsement of Blackburn.

“We have a history in this state that is not for these over-the-top ideologue conservatives,” Nownes said.

Of course, Corker’s once fierce criticisms of Trump ultimately tanked his popularity in the state. But he represents a side of Tennessee Republicanism that makes a Bredesen win look more possible.