Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn campaigns Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, at a cafe in Brentwood, Tenn. Blackburn is strongly embracing President Donald Trump as she claims the Republican nomination for Tennessee's open U.S. Senate seat. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mixed success for candidates favoring Trump in Tennessee

August 03, 2018 - 1:10 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Basking in the afterglow of an emphatic Republican primary victory in her bid for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn proclaimed it a win for the agenda of President Donald Trump, a statement from Tennessee voters that they want to give him their full support.

"We know that what Tennesseans say that they want to see in their next senator is somebody who is going to stand with President Trump to finish the agenda that they voted for when they elected him," she said Thursday.

But the Republican primary for governor tested the limits of her theory.

In that race, U.S. Rep. Diane Black began as the favorite, made multiple appearances with the president and left no room for opponents to outdo her devotion to him, though at times they tried. She won the endorsement of Vice President Mike Pence and basked in warm comments at every turn from Trump, who ultimately stopped short of a formal endorsement.

Black finished third.

On Friday another Republican candidate got what Black wanted in the primary: Trump tweeted his support for GOP nominee Bill Lee in the general election contest for governor.

Voters had mixed feelings about the Trump-themed GOP election. Nashville resident Diane Dimel said Thursday that she voted for Trump in 2016, but no longer supports him or the candidates he favors.

"When I saw all those ads for Diane Black with President Trump, that was one where I was like, 'Well, I am definitely not going to vote for her,'" said Dimel, who added that she now regrets her vote for Trump.

But Robert Crowell, 69, of Nashville, said he voted for Black and other candidates who agree with Trump on issues like a strong national defense and protecting America's borders.

"I just go with the ones that agree with the president," he said.

Meanwhile, support for Trump seemed to help in the Senate race, where Blackburn touted Trump's wall-building immigration crackdown and his U.S. Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh. She has benefited from center-stage appearances alongside Trump and Pence in public events and fundraisers in Tennessee, and managed to avoid drawing any viable primary challengers.

Blackburn, who could become the state's first female U.S. senator, will face former Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in the general election. Bredesen walked a careful line throughout the campaign, saying he would support the president on policies that are good for Tennessee and oppose him on those that aren't.

Bredesen's bid could breathe life into a depleted Democratic Party in Tennessee that hasn't won statewide in more than a decade — not since he did it himself in his 2006 re-election bid. It's been even longer since Tennessee Democrats succeeded in Senate races. The last to win was former Vice President Al Gore in 1990.

Tennessee voted for Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016, but Bredesen's continued popularity and pledge of independent thinking have kept polls close in the contest to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker. The race could run up record campaign spending as Democrats anchor their hopes to break the 51-49 Republican Senate majority in the red, Southern state.

Bredesen easily won his primary Thursday.

In the governor's race, Democratic former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean touts himself as a leader like Bredesen who can break down partisan barriers and work with a Republican legislature during divisive political times. He easily won a primary contest Thursday.

Dean faces Lee, a Franklin businessman whose tab was one-third of what top GOP spender Randy Boyd paid in a bruising, $45 million-plus Republican primary. Lee deemed himself the race's only "conservative outsider" and heavily emphasized his Christian beliefs. Lee embraced Trump's agenda during the primaries but did not enjoy the connections that Black did.

The four leading candidates tapped into an unprecedented $40 million of their personal wealth.

Lee declined to take overt swipes at his opponents when they started a heavy rotation of attack ads.

Bredesen and Dean would need to peel off support from moderate Republicans and independents in the red state.

Blackburn bills herself as a "hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative." Pence and Trump have already attacked Bredesen on her behalf, saying he's too liberal for Tennessee and would fall in line with Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Bredesen has countered that his record as governor shows he's an independent thinker who won't cave to party leaders.

Bredesen has separated himself from Trump on several policies, most notably on tariffs, which threaten an estimated $1.4 billion in Tennessee exports, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a longtime Republican ally. The exports are linked to more than 850,000 jobs in the state related to farming, steel, baked goods, car manufacturing, whiskey distillers like Jack Daniel's, and more, the chamber said.

Blackburn has tried to distance herself from the White House carefully on tariffs amid a heightening trade war. She asked the commerce secretary to reconsider broad tariffs to avoid harm to Tennessee's economy. She has expressed "grave concern" about the tariffs, but said she appreciates the administration's goal of punishing bad actors like China.

Blackburn has opposed Corker's proposal to require a congressional vote on tariffs issued in the name of national security, a move that fellow Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander supports.

Tennessee has a history of electing centrist senators. Corker, for one, has further complicated the race by saying he's supporting Blackburn but won't actively campaign against Bredesen, whom he has called a friend.

Corker also has publicly tussled with Trump, once saying the president had turned the White House into an "adult day care center." Trump tweeted in response that Corker "couldn't get elected dog catcher in Tennessee," and Corker endured booing at a Trump-Blackburn rally in Nashville this spring.

Haslam, the popular two-term governor, threw his backing behind Blackburn at a campaign event Thursday, telling her supporters that the race is about control of the Senate.

Money shouldn't be a problem for either Senate candidate. Heading into July, Blackburn maintained an early 2-to-1 cash advantage over Bredesen, with $7.3 million in her bank account. But Bredesen would be one of the wealthiest members of Congress if elected, and he has already loaned $3.5 million of his own money to his campaign.

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Sheila Burke in Nashville and Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.