Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen is facing backlash from some of the staunchest supporters of his Senate campaign after coming out in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Campaign volunteers have been calling to cancel door-knocking and phone-banking shifts for Bredesen since his statement backing Kavanaugh, according to an internal spreadsheet maintained by the campaign and obtained by POLITICO. At least 22 volunteers so far have reached out to express frustration with the decision, according to the spreadsheet. POLITICO spoke with five who contacted the campaign to vent their anger.
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It’s a small fraction of Bredesen’s total volunteer force, which numbers in the thousands, according to his campaign. But it’s also just one slice of the frustration roiling Democrats since Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court last weekend.
“As a woman voter in Tennessee, I felt torpedoed by the statement,” said Rhonda McDowell, a campaign volunteer in Memphis.
McDowell, a 63-year-old travel agent, said she had volunteered twice a week for the past four or five weeks, but she told campaign staff she could not continue after Bredesen backed Kavanaugh. McDowell told POLITICO she was rethinking that decision, but only because she was worried about the effect Bredesen’s support for Kavanaugh could have on other Democrats running in Tennessee.
“I was so conflicted about it for a while but the more I think about these candidates who are down the ballot, the more I think I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face here,” McDowell said.
Bredesen, a former two-term governor, is fighting to win support from moderate and conservative swing voters in his quest to carry deep-red Tennessee, while also working to hold onto his Democratic base in the closing weeks of his campaign against Republican Rep. MArsha Blackburn.
But the fight over Kavanaugh has put those goals at odds. Retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who holds the seat that Bredesen and Blackburn are seeking, told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor last week that Democrats’ handling of the Kavanaugh nomination has hurt Bredesen politically. While Corker has endorsed Blackburn, he’s also close friends with Bredesen and has praised him repeatedly.
“I told him I felt the Kavanaugh hearings themselves had been been very detrimental to Gov. Bredesen and very positive for Rep. Blackburn. I wasn’t doing it to poke at him,” Corker said on Thursday. “That was certainly very, very beneficial to Rep. Blackburn because people saw and they said: Do we really want these people in charge?”
Three straight public polls have shown Bredesen trailing Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn by a significant margin, though Republicans and Democrats say private polling shows a much closer race. Democrats need to win Tennessee to have any hope at winning a Senate majority, and a victory for Blackburn would likely cement GOP control of the chamber.
“Congresswoman Blackburn is surging in Tennessee. So I think the way Kavanaugh was treated, and Dr. Ford too, has backfired and created a lot of energy,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn in an interview.
But Democrats are not writing off the race yet, according to a Democrat working on Senate races, who said Republicans are overblowing the narrative that Kavanaugh helps them win in red states.
Volunteer anger hasn’t been the only fallout after Bredesen became a rare pro-Kavanaugh Democrat. Priorities USA, a top Democratic outside group, announced it would not support Bredesen, though the group had yet to spend any money in the Tennessee race. Bredesen’s campaign was also targeted by Project Veritas, a right-wing organization that runs “sting” operations surreptitiously recording targets. The group released a video Thursday of Tennessee Democratic Party staffers saying Bredesen’s support for Kavanaugh had only been a political decision.
Mark Brown, a spokesman for the coordinated effort between Bredesen’s campaign and the Tennessee Democratic Party, released a statement saying the comments captured on video were “uninformed and speculative.” He added that the party was considering legal action against Project Veritas.
During a debate with Blackburn Wednesday, Bredesen defended his decision to back Kavanaugh, saying he took his time to evaluate the nomination and was satisfied with his support. He called himself an “equal opportunity offender” when it comes to frustrating both parties.
“I watched it very closely and finally I just came to the conclusion that all things being equal, I did not think that those allegations rose to the level of disqualification from the Supreme Court,” Bredesen said.
Asked about the campaign volunteers who were expressing frustration, Laura Zapata, a spokeswoman for Bredesen’s campaign, said he had “galvanized the largest grassroots campaign” in Tennessee.
“Real independence — not party politics — is what Tennesseans are craving and that is why Governor Bredesen is on the path to victory,” Zapata said.
Moderate Democrats argued that the party should stay in Tennessee, explaining that the election will ultimately turn on Bredesen’s record as governor bringing in jobs to the state and not on his Kavanaugh positioning. Kavanaugh hurt everyone in the Senate and everyone that had taken a position on the embattled nominee, they explained.
“Everybody took a hit. It was disgraceful. you ‘re going to put yourself in the fray right now, you’re going to take a hit,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was governor of his state during Bredesen’s tenure and who also supported Kavanaugh.
But Jay Pounders, a singer-songwriter in Nashville, said he had planned to volunteer for Bredesen last Sunday, but contacted the campaign to cancel after Bredesen’s decision on Kavanaugh and now plans to volunteer for Karl Dean, the Democratic nominee for governor. He will still vote for Bredesen.
“He’s not going to get me to go the extra mile to help him get elected,” Pounders said.
Wil Morse, 22, a graduate student at Vanderbilt, said he called a campaign staffer to express his frustration last week, and the staffer called him back Tuesday to explain why the staffer was continuing with the campaign. Morse said he deliberated for days about whether to make the same decision. He said Bredesen’s choice was wrong, whether it was about politics or about legitimate support for Kavanaugh.
“If it’s a political decision, that means he’s compromising his values, and if it’s not a political decision, that means he doesn’t share the same values I do,” Morse said. “That makes it difficult to keep volunteering and being as supportive as I was.”
Morse later told POLITICO he ultimately decided to keep volunteering with Bredesen despite his frustration with the Democrat’s support of Kavanaugh, viewing Bredesen as a clear choice over Blackburn.
Some volunteers have walked back their anger since the initial outburst. David Kemp, 64, a real estate agent, said he had “settled down after the initial shock” of Bredesen’s support for Kavanaugh, and that he planned to donate money to Bredesen, and may even volunteer for the campaign again if he has the time before Election Day.
“That was momentary,” he said of his anger last week. “It has not changed my vote. It has perhaps dampened my enthusiasm for what we might be able to accomplish with a fellow like Bredesen in there but it is bound to be better.”