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Race for Tennessee Senate seat takes shape on Trump, tariffs

June 9, 2018
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President Donald Trump gestures for Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to speak at a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s Senate campaign supporters are replaying President Donald Trump’s latest Nashville rally in an early offensive against Democratic contender and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who has tried to shrug off the attacks and shift his focus to opposing the president’s tariffs.

Bredesen’s misgivings about tariffs align him with the Republican senator he hopes to replace, Bob Corker, at times an outspoken critic of the president and the leader of a legislative push to rein in Trump’s tariff powers. Corker has said he won’t campaign against Bredesen, despite supporting Blackburn in a Senate race widely seen as one of Democrats’ best chances to win a Republican-held seat in 2018.

Trump’s popularity with Tennessee voters and how his trade policies will affect them have become campaign weapons for both sides as the race takes shape. Both candidates face minimal opposition in August party primaries and are looking toward November with the GOP’s 51-49 Senate majority on the line.

Videos released this week by Blackburn’s campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee use Trump’s comments last month in Nashville to argue that Bredesen will toe the Democratic line, despite his pledge to work across party lines, support Trump’s good ideas, and oppose his bad ones.

“Democrats running for office, many of them, are saying great things about me,” Trump said at a rally last month. “In fact, I think they’re Republicans. But here’s the problem, they’re not going to vote for us.”

Bredesen, who has said he’s not running against Trump, has likened the president’s tariffs policy to a new tax on Tennesseans. The stance puts him on the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative, free-market group Americans for Prosperity, which recently spent money on pro-Blackburn advertising for her no vote on the omnibus spending bill in March.

Trump is imposing tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum from Mexico, Canada and the European Union, some of the U.S.’s top allies. Corker and other senators have moved to halt Trump’s threat to slap tariffs on auto imports, including cars from Japan.

Corker’s Tennessee colleague, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, is among a bipartisan group of senators co-sponsoring Corker’s bill, which would require Congress to sign off on tariffs imposed in the name of national security. Bredesen chimed in with praise for Corker, saying he put “Tennessee ahead of Washington politics” in pushing back on tariffs.

“They will drive up prices, hurt our economy and will cost jobs, especially in our important automotive sector,” Bredesen said in a news release. “The retaliatory tariffs that are promised to follow will hurt our exports, damaging farmers and even hitting iconic Tennessee businesses like Jack Daniel’s.”

Blackburn has expressed some concern about the tariffs, but said they are part of a negotiation to bring countries to the table. She said she met with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and that 18,000 exemptions to the tariffs have been requested.

“Remember, the goal is to punish the bad actors and to do no harm to the American consumer and the American job creator,” Blackburn said in a video posted Thursday.

Blackburn and national Republicans have pushed to try to cut into the red state’s positive views of the former governor. In a Vanderbilt University poll last month, 85 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of independents and even 52 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Bredesen.

The new videos from Blackburn’s supporters repeat the president’s assertion that Bredesen is an “absolute total tool” of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and would vote with Democrats against Trump’s agenda “every single time.”

Trump also brought up Bredesen’s political donations to support former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton while in Nashville. Before facing Clinton in 2016, Trump donated to her U.S. Senate campaign and the Clinton Foundation.

Trump also nicknamed Bredesen “Phil whatever-the-hell-his-name-is” and called him “Philbert,” though polling shows Tennessee voters still know Bredesen seven years after leaving office. In audio tape of a private Nashville fundraiser obtained by The Tennessean, the president said Bredesen would be “tough” and that the race would be close.

Blackburn, a self-titled “hardcore, card-carrying conservative,” wants to make Trump’s support a top weapon in a state where he garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in 2016, and he retains a 53 percent approval rating in the latest Vanderbilt poll.

Blackburn has a 72 percent favorability among Republicans, 44 percent with independents and 23 percent among Democrats, the Vanderbilt poll found.

Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Mark Brown contends that Trump’s event did little to sway independents and moderate Republicans. Blackburn’s campaign disagreed.

“Tennesseans from all walks of life were excited to welcome President Trump back to Tennessee, and they are pleased that Marsha will work with him on their behalf to cut taxes, rebuild the military, care for our veterans, and confirm conservative judges who won’t legislate from the bench,” said Blackburn campaign spokeswoman Abbi Sigler.

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