Trump looms large as Tennesseans weigh in on GOP gubernatorial nod and pivotal Senate fight

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn has won the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s open U.S. Senate race to replace the retiring Sen. Bob Corker, which holds major implications for Democrats’ chances for overturning the 51-49 Republican Senate majority in November.

Blackburn easily advanced past minimal opposition in Thursday’s primary. She and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who won the Democratic primary on Thursday, have long looked past the primaries to their upcoming general election matchup.

Polls have shown a close contest for the seat, which Fox News currently assesses is too close to call. Blackburn could become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate by Tennessee voters.

She calls herself a “hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative” who would fight for President Donald Trump’s agenda.

Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, state Rep. Beth Harwell and businessman Bill Lee are among the top Republican contenders in the Tennessee gubernatorial race.  (Campaign photos)

Bredesen is running as an independent thinker who says he will work with Trump when his ideas make sense for Tennessee and oppose him when they don’t.

It was still too close to call the state’s hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary. President Trump hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the race, yet his shadow loomed large in the race to replace the state’s term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam.

The results in the primary contest will reverberate nationally — serving not only as a bellwether for Trump enthusiasm in a state that supported him by double digits in 2016, but also as a prelude to a pivotal November race that could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Bredesen Blackburn Split AP

Phil Bredesen, left, and Marsha Blackburn were projected to win their respective primary battles and face off in a key Senate fight in November.  (AP)

The top four Republican contenders for governor have spent a combined $40 million of their own personal wealth fighting over who is more devoted to Trump, setting records and underscoring the president’s continuing influence in state races.

U.S. Rep. Diane Black is facing off against former state economic development chief Randy Boyd, businessman Bill Lee and State House Speaker Beth Harwell.


Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, front center, campaigns Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, in Memphis, Tenn., in his bid for U.S. Senate. Bredesen and Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn face only nominal primary opposition in their race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, front center, campaigning Wednesday in Memphis, Tenn., in his bid for U.S. Senate. Bredesen and Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn faced only nominal primary opposition in their race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker.  (AP)

Vice President Pence has offered his support for Black. But Trump, who has a 56 percent approval rating in Tennessee, has stopped short of endorsing her, despite keeping her by his side and praising her at several events.

Meanwhile, the Democratic and Republican Senate primaries on Thursday provided less drama, but posed perhaps even greater national significance. 

The Blackburn-Bredesen showdown is among several races crucial to Trump’s plans to maintain control of the Senate, where Republicans are defending a narrow two-seat majority. If Democrats retake the Senate, it would deal a major blow to Trump’s agenda, hampering his ability to appoint federal judges and all but killing the prospect of signature initiatives like a southern border wall.

Trump has endorsed Blackburn, an eight-term congresswoman, and traveled to Tennessee in May to campaign for her. Blackburn told Fox News at the time that Trump’s support had helped her candidacy build “momentum.”

Blackburn served on Trump’s transition team and has not shied away from embracing the president. She is one of the lawmakers who signed onto a letter nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In a Thursday appearance, Governor Haslam touted Blackburn’s candidacy. The governor suggested that keeping Republican Senate control is important in part because Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander would lose his health committee chairmanship, among other leadership changes.

Haslam told a room of Republicans that their role is to remind people of “the Marsha you’ve known for a long time.” He also told reporters that he has a good relationship with former Governor Bredesen, but that “this is about who I think would be the best person to represent Tennessee in Washington.”

Bredesen, 74, has helped his viability in the red state by assuring voters that he is not hyperpartisan and promising he is not “running against” Trump. If elected, he will become the first Democrat to win a Senate campaign in the Volunteer State since Al Gore in 1990.


A Harvard graduate worth tens of millions of dollars, Bredesen has touted his business credentials, saying they will help him win over “economic Republicans, the more traditional-minded Republicans” in November.

He also has received some high-profile support of his own. Corker, a Republican and frequent Trump critic, has praised Bredesen in the race, calling him a “very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person.” 

By contrast, Corker has often had harsh words for Trump. After the deadly violence at protests in Charlottesville, Va., last August, Corker said that Trump had demonstrated neither the “stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”

And at a dramatic moment at a hearing in July, Corker pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to explain what he characterized as Trump’s “purposeful” efforts to sow misinformation and discord.


Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has previously acknowledged his attacks on Trump might not be endearing him to many of his constituents. In a survey conducted last year, Corker’s disapproval rating had soared to 41 percent in Tennessee. Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating in the state held steady at roughly 50 percent.

Tennessee, like its southern neighbors, was once dominated by Democrats. But it hasn’t elected one to statewide office since 2006, and in 2012 Republicans secured supermajorities in both houses for the first time since Reconstruction. 

Voters will also decide on nominees for nine House races on Thursday.

Fox News’ Kaitlyn Schallhorn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gregg Re is an editor for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @gregg_re.

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