MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. — Marsha Blackburn was navigating her way from table to table, saying hello to voters inside a small restaurant in this bustling suburb of Nashville before sunrise last Saturday when a man took her hand and offered a distinctly odd greeting.
“Thirty-three thousand four hundred,” he declared.
Blackburn, the eight-term Republican congressman (her preferred title) from middle Tennessee who is now vying for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, broke into a wide smile. “Thirty-three thousand four hundred,” she replied, with a nod. “You got it!”
The number has become a shorthand for one of her main arguments against her Democratic opponent, Phil Bredesen, who has made the race closer than expected in the heavily Republican state.
Days earlier, in her final debate with Bredesen, Blackburn had brought up the same talking point again and again, no matter the question or topic. Bredesen, she said, had backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 to the tune of $33,400, a figure she repeated no less than a dozen times in the hour-long debate.
A regular on the cable TV circuit who is known for her strict message discipline, Blackburn was mocked by detractors, especially on Twitter, for the seemingly robotic performance. And by the end of the night, even Bredesen seemed to be losing his patience, the split screen capturing him looking exasperated at his opponent’s attempts to tie him to Clinton, an unpopular figure in Tennessee who lost the state two years ago by 26 points.
“Congressman,” Bredesen dryly told Blackburn at one point, “I did not think you could possibly beat the number of mentions you made of Chuck Schumer in our last debate, but I believe you have with Hillary Clinton here tonight.”
But in this bustling breakfast spot, where Blackburn had at one point gone behind the counter to help dish up heaping plates of bacon and eggs and pancakes to get face time with prospective voters, her strategy seemed to be working. Thirty-three thousand, four hundred came up, unprompted, in at least three exchanges with voters.
Being repetitive, even if it seemed silly, works, Blackburn said. That’s lesson one of sales and marketing, which was her field before she was elected to Congress 16 years ago. “I would always say to people I worked with, ‘Perception is reality,’ and you have to realize that to get a message through you’ve gotta say it about 12 times before somebody hears it, and then you’ve gotta say it another 12 times before they start to repeat it,” Blackburn said.
And that’s Blackburn’s strategy heading into the final stretch of a campaign in which she has struggled to hold on to Republicans, especially moderates who have broken with their party to back Bredesen, a centrist Democrat and popular former governor, who is running on a record of fiscal conservatism and working with the GOP.
Blackburn has argued for months that Bredesen is a Democrat and would vote that way, something he says his record belies. And she has sought to tie him to Clinton and to unpopular party leaders like Schumer, the Senate minority leader who helped recruit him for the race. But the contentious battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court appears to have given her campaign new life. A New York Times/Siena College poll last week had her up 14 points among likely voters, a dramatic shift after spending much of the summer in an average 50-50 tie with Bredesen.
Part of the shift is a turnaround with women. Before the Kavanaugh vote, Bredesen led Blackburn by an average 10 points among likely women voters, but the NYT/Siena poll found the congressman with a 3-point edge—a result still within the survey’s margin of error but a trend that has Bredesen supporters worried. The former governor was attacked by Blackburn for taking weeks to say whether he would support Kavanaugh’s nomination. And when Bredesen ultimately did say he would have voted for Kavanaugh, he appears to have angered some of his own supporters.
But polls also suggest Bredesen has lost ground with Republicans, who he will need if he has a chance of turning the state’s senate seat blue. In July, an Emerson College poll found Bredesen with at least 20 point support among likely Republican voters. But the NYT/Sienna poll suggested most Republicans are lining up behind Blackburn, who has been criticized by moderates in the party for being too conservative and partisan.
To keep the momentum going, Blackburn has seized on the Kavanaugh confirmation to argue to wavering Republicans that a vote for Bredesen is a vote for a Democratic majority in the Senate, and in her stump speech to voters, she has expanded her list of Dem bogeymen. A vote for Bredesen, she said here last week, was a vote for “Dianne Feinstein as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bernie Sanders for chairman of the Budget Committee, Elizabeth Warren for chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, would have to surrender his gavel to Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, “who is the leading advocate of Medicare for all,” Blackburn declared. “These are who Phil Bredesen would be joined at the hip with in Washington DC.”
The chaos of the Kavanaugh vote, Blackburn said in an interview, had “crystallized” the stakes of the race for Republicans, who she said were beginning to unite behind her bid. She said she did not believe Tennessee Republicans wanted the state to be the one to possibly hand majority control of the Senate to Democrats. “People saw how that would play out” through the Kavanaugh proceedings, she said. “And I think they said, “Nope, can’t do it.”
But Blackburn also acknowledged the race is far from settled. And at the restaurant here, a visit coming just days before the start of early voting on Oct. 17, she took a small stage in the restaurant’s back room and began ticking through everything she needed her supporters to do, running through her list like the hyper-organized Girl Scout mom she used to be.
She pointed to a table of Marsha for Tennessee stickers and ordered people to put one on their car. (“We need the advertising! If you can’t get it on, I’ll put it on there for you!”) She pointed to the yard signs in the back. (“Take them! This is the adopt a yard sign program! They need a home!”) And she urged people to start calling everyone they know on her behalf. “I need you to go through your address book, and call everybody. … How many of you have a church list? A directory? Call everybody. Your rotary club, call ‘em. Marsha needs your vote.”
Before she left, Blackburn said she had just one question for her audience. How much money did Phil Bredesen give Hillary Clinton?, she asked.
A few feet away, the man she had spoken to earlier threw his hands in the air. “$33,400!” he yelled.
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