One of Democrats’ most unlikely Senate opportunities this fall is, indeed, not to be. GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn has defeated Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen in Tennessee and will replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker in the Senate. Networks like CNN and NBC called the race early. With 21 percent of precincts reporting, Blackburn was leading Bredesen by 25 percentage points, 62 to 37 percent.
The race had potential as a toss-up earlier in the year. Blackburn was a sharply conservative nominee, while Bredesen—a centrist, even conservative Democrat—remained well-liked from his tenure as governor in the 2000s.
But the Tennessee of today isn’t the Tennessee even of 10 or 20 years ago. The state has completely shed its ancestral Democratic history, going for Donald Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016. It’s now about the same, politically, as Alabama. And Bredesen wasn’t running against an alleged child molester.
This race was a critical one for Democrats’ distant hope of taking control of the Senate, a fact that Republicans consistently played up—and Bredesen consistently, if perplexingly, denied. When asked about a possible Democratic Senate majority, Bredesen would describe the chances of such a thing as “minuscule.” He tried to further distance himself from the national party by saying that he wouldn’t support Chuck Schumer as Senate Democratic leader. (That’s an easy concession to make, since Schumer would only need a simple majority of his caucus.)
The Blackburn campaign and outside Republican affiliates were relentless, however, in tying Bredesen to national Democrats. In debates, she would rarely let a sentence pass that didn’t include the name “Hillary Clinton.” A National Republican Senatorial Committee ad that ran in October, meanwhile, warned that “if Phil Bredesen wins, Dianne Feinstein picks your judges. Bernie Sanders runs the budget. And Chuck Schumer runs everything.”
And that’s really all it takes for a Republican to beat a Democrat in Tennessee. Even if the Democrat has Taylor Swift’s endorsement.