To understand how Phil Bredesen, a former Democratic governor of Tennessee, has a chance of winning this year’s race to replace Bob Corker as the junior senator from this deep-red state, it helps to know a story making the rounds in Nashville about his likely Republican opponent, Representative Marsha Blackburn.
After returning from a 1995 trip to Los Angeles to drum up support for the Tennessee film industry, Ms. Blackburn, the executive director of the state’s Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, submitted her expense receipts to the office of the Republican governor, Don Sundquist.
The office sent them back, saying that a limousine was inappropriate for a state official. Ms. Blackburn said she didn’t hire a limo, but paid the charges; she then set the receipts on fire and sent the ashes to her superiors with a note: “Copy of L.A. expense report as requested!”
The story would remain a fun bit of political lore, save for one detail: Today those ashes are in the care of a Bredesen staffer. Someone in Mr. Sundquist’s circle saved them, waiting for a chance to pass them along to the right person with a pointed message: There are a lot of Republicans waiting to see Marsha Blackburn fall.
Ms. Blackburn is a Tea Party and Trump stalwart, as are many Tennessee voters. She also represents a type of conservatism that may be peaking in some parts of the South: combative, inflexible and more interested in picking fights than actually governing. An aggregate of recent polls has Mr. Bredesen leading her by 5 percentage points.
Mr. Bredesen spent two terms as governor, from 2003 to 2011, with a pro-business reputation. But since he last ran for office, in 2006, when he won all 95 counties, his party has suffered a string of defeats: only in Nashville and Memphis do Democrats hold congressional seats; at the state level, Democrats have been reduced to superminority status in both houses, meaning they are not even needed for the Legislature to hold session.
Why then did Mr. Bredesen, at 74, dive back into the political fray? Associates say that he never would have challenged Mr. Corker, a friend and, like him, a former mayor and businessman, but the thought of losing a nominal check on Mr. Trump bothered him. And even last fall, before the Democrat Doug Jones beat Roy Moore for a Senate seat in Alabama, internal Democratic polls put him slightly ahead of Ms. Blackburn in a state that Donald Trump carried by 26 percentage points.
Ms. Blackburn, on the other hand, was ready made for the Trump era. As a state senator she hounded Mr. Sundquist on taxes; after jumping to Congress, she became an at-the-ready Obama critic who spent the last decade as a fixture on cable news outlets. She’s one of the president’s strongest defenders in Congress, voting with him 91 percent of the time.
But a statewide campaign in Tennessee is not like running in a safe House district or doing another segment on Fox News. And not all Republicans are alike.
Take East Tennessee, which has produced many of the statewide Republicans in recent years, including Mr. Corker, Lamar Alexander, Howard Baker and the current governor, Bill Haslam. Mountain Republicans have 150 years of political tradition and, while conservative, have often displayed a pragmatic streak.
But in Middle Tennessee, the conservatism is newer, and more cultural. The state’s biggest wingnuts, like the senator whose anti-L.G.B.T. student bill was referred to as “Don’t say gay,” primarily hail from here. Ms. Blackburn’s 7th District, running from Kentucky to Alabama, draws heavily from this area and her stance on many issues has played well with that crowd.
But even in Middle Tennessee there are some ominous signs for Republicans. In a special election for a State Senate seat in December, a Democrat lost by just 307 votes, in a district Mr. Trump carried by more than 50 percentage points.
While Mr. Trump’s rhetoric may play well nationally, it may be a tougher sell at the state level, where personalities, local politics and the driving need to get something done dominate. Ms. Blackburn is a barnburner; it’s not clear that she can be a barn-builder. On the stump, she’s more comfortable talking up illegal immigration and, at an event in Murfreesboro, calling for the support of a candidate who believes in creationism. In contrast, Mr. Bredesen’s latest spot emphasizes that as senator he would support a good idea, even if it comes from Mr. Trump.
His get-it-done message resonates with state Republican leaders, including Mr. Corker, who couldn’t even say Ms. Blackburn’s name in a recent appearance on CNN. “I’ve said I’m gonna plan to vote for this person,” Corker told an incredulous Dana Bash, before adding that Mr. Bredesen “is my friend,” adding, “I’m not gonna campaign against him.”
In a race that could determine control of the Senate, Tennessee Republicans may hold their nose and vote for Ms. Blackburn. Then again, one of the wealthiest of them, Colleen Conway-Welch, held a fund-raiser for Mr. Bredesen, which raised $350,000. Ms. Conway-Welch and her husband, Ted Welch, have supported Republicans for decades. But Ms. Blackburn appears to be a bridge too far.
If this keeps up, the Sundquist staffer who held onto those ashes for years may finally get revenge.
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