A dozen years ago, liberals denounced Phil Bredesen, the then-Democratic governor of Tennessee, for his decision to kick off about 170,000 adults from the state’s expanded Medicaid program in order to fix a budget crisis.
Years later, in 2009, bloggers at the American Prospect and New Republic, the progressive group MoveOn.org, and other critics from the Left pounced on the decision, sinking Bredesen’s chances of becoming President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Bredesen said he felt like he got “mugged,” while The Wall Street Journal editorial board defended him from the attacks, calling him a “pragmatic problem-solver.”
Now, Democrats have turned to Bredesen, a 74-year old white, moderate man for their political salvation, even as many of them wish for a future of ever greater progressive policies on the backs of increasingly diverse younger generations. But officials and strategists from Tennessee to D.C. say Bredesen is the Democrats’ best shot to win the open Senate seat, giving them a slim chance to take back the Senate in 2018.
The argument: He’s the last Democrat to win statewide, and he’s the only one left who can do it again—though he’s unlikely to spend much time highlighting that fact.
“I’ll be honest: If I ran for this office saying, ‘I’m a Democrat, vote for me because I’m a Democrat,’ I wouldn’t win,” Bredesen said in an interview. “What I need to do is just remind people of who I am and how I solve problems, and how you reach across the aisle to do things.”
Bredesen—who would be the oldest Senate freshman since World War II if he wins—is well aware that much has changed since his last, dominant campaign in 2006, when the country’s partisan divide was much weaker. He said he knows “it’s a more challenging environment.”
While some Democrats in Congress from liberal enclaves of the country are calling for President Trump to be impeached, Bredesen doesn’t vilify Trump, who retains the support of about half the state, according to an October Middle Tennessee State University poll.
Bredesen noted that “there’s got to be several hundred thousand people” who voted for him in 2006 and Trump in 2016. He noted their differences in style—apparent to anyone who watches the former physicist and reality TV star—and then said his obligation is to “set personalities aside” and do what’s best for Tennessee. “I certainly did that with President Obama,” he noted. “I was not a fan of the Affordable Care Act, and I was very clear about that.”
Instead, he’s running broadly against Washington, saying he’s “become appalled at how the government seems to have ceased functioning.”
“I’m not really running against the president,” said Bredesen.
Bredesen was raised by his mother and grandmother in rural Shortsville, New York with little financial means. He left to go to Harvard on a scholarship and earned a physics degree in 1967. He arrived in Tennessee in 1975, when his wife, Andrea Conte, a registered nurse, got a job in Nashville. In 1980, Bredesen started the health-care-management company HealthAmerica, building his fortune from scratch. In his first ad for Senate, he touts that the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and grew to 6,000 employees. He sold it in 1986 and began running for office.
After a couple of unsuccessful political campaigns, he became mayor of Nashville in 1991, and served until 1999, helping revitalize the city’s downtown with new schools, parks, and a library. He recruited Dell Computer, the Nashville Predators NHL team, and the Tennessee Titans to the state capital even though he had never been to an NFL game before. He then beat Rep. Van Hilleary for governor in 2002.
In 2005, Bredesen was near the end of his first term, a year out from picking up every county in his reelection race, campaigning on a “Third Way” record. He had balanced the budget for years, raised teacher pay, expanded a pre-kindergarten education initiative, and worked to get the Nissan Motor Company to plant its North American headquarters in Franklin. In 2006, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Much has changed since his last race. The state, historically more moderate than the other Southern states that surrounded it, was taken over by Republicans during the Obama era. In the last three presidential contests, Tennessee voted for John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump by increasing margins, and in 2012, Republicans got their first supermajority in the state House and Senate. In 2016, Trump won all but three counties with over 60 percent of the vote.
Making matters even harder for Bredesen is that running for the state’s highest office is different than running for Senate, where the national party’s image can stain even a mild-mannered centrist like Bredesen. Since he left office, he’s chaired the board of Nashville-based Silicon Ranch, a renewable-energy provider, and developed his woodworking skills making furniture. He hasn’t gone Washington since he left office—the mortal sins of wannabe senators like former governors Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ted Strickland of Ohio. But his bid still tests history: Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore in 1990.
Many strategists and party officials from both sides of the aisle think Bredesen is the Democrats’ best shot. After eight years in office, Bredesen left in 2011 still overwhelmingly popular, with over 72 percent approval or better from Democrats, Republicans, and independents from east, west, and middle Tennessee, according to the Nashville Scene.
That widespread appeal is why Democrats pursued Bredesen, even though James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and Army veteran, was already running as a Democrat.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer invited Bredesen to dinner last month in Washington, where Bredesen said Schumer assured him that a freshman senator can do meaningful work in focused areas, which for the former HealthAmerica executive would presumably be in health care. Republicans in the state recognize the threat.
“I think Phil was a get-it-done mayor and governor; I don’t know that ideology was much of an issue,” said Tom Ingram, a longtime strategist for Tennessee’s Republican senators and governors. “It’s hard to imagine a Democrat better [than he,] given his history as mayor and as governor—and his capacity to contribute to his own race and ability to raise money.”
“I think the problem in Tennessee remains whether there’s a path for a Democratic candidate, no matter how good they are,” he added.
In interviews with National Journal, Tennessee’s two Republican senators commended Bredesen.
“I know Phil Bredesen well; he was a good governor,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, who also served as governor. “I don’t intend to get involved in the Democratic primary, but I think Phil’s challenge will be explaining to Tennesseans why they’re better off with one more vote for the Democratic majority than one more vote for the Republican majority. That will be his challenge.”
Sen. Bob Corker said he’s known Bredesen for about two decades, and a year ago went to Bredesen’s house for advice on whether to run again. Bredesen told him to do it. Now, after Corker’s decision to retire, and the entry of Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Rep. Stephen Fincher into the Republican primary, Bredesen is running for Corker’s seat.
Corker called Bredesen a “formidable candidate,” “really smart,” and a “big-picture person.” When asked if he would endorse the Democrat, Corker laughed and said, “Now you’re going a little too far.”
Other Republicans aren’t so chummy. Blackburn spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said Bredesen won’t bring “change” to the Senate. “Marsha is the only true conservative in this race who will ensure liberal Bredesen doesn’t block President Trump’s agenda in Washington,” she said.
Some Democrats in turn say Bredesen seems like a Republican at times, and Mackler is still running, pitching the primary as “a clear contrast between an Iraq War combat veteran” and a “career politician who only serve special interests.” But even more liberal Democratic officials in the state are siding with the former governor.
When asked if Bredesen is a Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen, a progressive from Memphis, responded that Bredesen “says he is.” Still, Cohen said liberals would come out to vote against the Republican. Bredesen is, after all, “our best possibility of winning the seat.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Republican in the 2002 Tennessee governor race.