Despite not being a popular figure, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn will replace retiring senator Bob Corker (R).
Even with just 21 percent of precincts reporting, Blackburn is projected to be the next U.S. Senator for Tennessee, according to CNN. She had 62 percent of all counted votes as of 9:20 PM Eastern Time.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) November 7, 2018
The race was particularly tight because of how popular former two-term Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen was, and how unpopular Marsha Blackburn was in a deep-red state.
“It’s tight because Phil Bredesen is a singularly popular Democrat in this state. I think any other Democrat would be behind by 15 to 20 points,” University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Anthony Nownes said. “Few voters associate Bredesen with the national Democratic Party, and he has worked hard to present himself to voters as a competent problem-solver rather than a partisan.”
Meanwhile, Blackburn is much the opposite.
“Statewide, [Blackburn] has never carved a very popular figure,” said Vanderbilt professor John Greer. “She’s not well-liked, even within Republican circles.”
Greer also pointed to Tennessee’s growing centrism, as exemplified by retiring Senator Bob Corker (R), Senator Lamar Alexander (R) and Governor Bill Haslam (R), all of whom are far closer to moderate than Blackburn.
Blackburn is a polarizing figure and Bredesen isn’t, according to another Vanderbilt political science professor, Bruce Oppenheimer.
This all made for a very tight race in an unlikely place.
That said, Blackburn pulled ahead in late polls, attributed partially to popular support for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation (even Bredesen announced his support for Kavanaugh) and partially to deteriorating favorability toward both candidates. While that might hurt Blackburn, the fact that she wasn’t particularly well-liked to begin with meant it was a hit to Bredesen far more.
In what seemed an unusual race, the return to the familiar corners of political discourse is something of a disappointment; a reminder that a popular unifying figure isn’t enough in today’s political climate.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.