NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE — Imagine, if you will, being confined only to places you to which you can walk, and then, one day, someone shows up and gives you a car. A car! Think of how much more you can do! The places you can go!
But then you hear from other people who were gifted the cars. You learn the brakes are iffy, the engine patchy and prone to breakdowns. Do you take your chances and hop in the car? Or do you stick to walking — safe, sure, but stuck?
It’s this conundrum, essentially, that Democratic and progressive women in Tennessee were faced with about a month ago, when Democratic Senate nominee Phil Bredesen announced that, were he then a member of the Senate, he would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
A Bredesen win in 2018 is a necessary ingredient to any Democratic takeover of the Senate. Two years ago, Donald Trump won Tennessee by 26 points, but Bredesen’s deep roots offered Democrats a shot — a decade earlier, he’d won every county in the state along the way to being re-elected governor. And for the early months of the campaign, Bredesen showed promise, consistently leading his Republican opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), in every poll.
But not anymore.
In its own way, Bredesen’s travails are part of an ongoing about divisions within the Democratic party, still smarting from its history-altering 2016 loss, and in search of answers to reverse their fortunes. Two years later, what, precisely that lesson was remains up for debate, at least among the party’s elites.
Out west, Beto O’Rourke has become emblematic of one possible lesson: He combines a rich discussion of progressive policy with the sort of charisma that powers mega-virality and earns a broad following. O’Rourke has earned the fandom through hard-work that rarely escapes attention — at events, he works himself into such a sweat that his 720,000 followers litter their feeds with post-rally selfies in which O’Rourke looks as if he jumped into the Rio Grande river with his clothes on.
Three town hall attendees in Hamilton told us they're over 90 years old! Grateful that they'd join us, ask questions, and share their experiences. pic.twitter.com/6cQ3T2ECav
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 29, 2018
Bredesen, well, is not O’Rourke. The former governor, at 74, is mild in both manner and ideological disposition. Ask anyone in Tennessee and they’ll tell you, sometimes punctuated with a smile and other times with a less-than-subtle eyeroll, that he just wants to work across the aisle.
Regardless, Bredesen was supposed to be, for Democrats, that car — taking them from their outcast state and returning them to power. But his embrace of Kavanaugh — a purely theoretical stance — has left women in his state standing by the side of the road, asked to hold their noses and pull the lever for him so that he can ride to Washington
At an early voting party outside Nashville, Melissa Cherry worked the crowd taking in the band, the barbecue, and the representatives of local civic organizations. She was on hand to talk to voters about a proposed amendment that would create a community oversight board in an effort to create more transparency in the local police department, but eventually, our conversation turned to Bredesen.
“I don’t even know if I can verbalize it,” Cherry told ThinkProgress when asked about Bredesen’s statements on Kavanaugh. “I think it’s reflective of the overall issues in the DNC and this determination about who they are and who they actually represent, because what I’ve seen across the country is that the DNC has decided that as an organization that they would rather embrace middle of the road Republicans than the people that actually elected them.”
Cherry talked as her young toddler, whose face bore the results of an attempt to eat baked beans, called “mama, mama!” She picked up her child, and continued, saying, “It’s really frustrating as a Democratic voter to know that this is an opportunity for Tennessee to really impact the national landscape and that’s the decision he made about that, because it really hamstrings Democratic voters to really decide, are we the people that will vote for anybody with a D next to their name or are we the people that can control the way that our party represents us?”
Cherry sighed. Georgia got Stacey Abrams, Florida got Andrew Gillum, these people who, as she put it, “have chosen the alternate route that actually represents what Democratic voters have wanted for a very long time, to be a true alternative to the Republican party.”
Tennessee got Bredesen.
There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Cherry, like many of the women to whom ThinkProgress spoke, still felt the raw disappointment. But the end of the road of grieving was in sight.
“It’s just really disappointing,” she told me, before adding, “But also not entirely unexpected.” Acceptance.
As quickly as time in 2018 seems to pass, it’s easy to forget that in the wake of Bredesen’s announcement, the anger was palpable. Multiple national Democratic groups announced they would no longer spend in favor of Bredesen, and a group of volunteers bolted.
“As a woman voter in Tennessee, I felt torpedoed by the statement,” Rhonda McDowell, a campaign volunteer in Memphis, told Politico, which reported that nearly two dozen volunteers canceled door-knocking and phone banking events.
If you like the hard-nosed, hyper-partisan shouting going on in Washington, my opponent has been there for 16 years & is very good at it. If you want a Senator who is willing to reach across the aisle to get things done for Tennessee, I’m applying for the job & I’m ready for it. pic.twitter.com/Leio3H9ha0
— Phil Bredesen (@PhilBredesen) October 29, 2018
Michele Bewley, one of the leaders of the grassroots progressive group Indivisible, active in Tennessee’s 7th district, which Blackburn currently represents, told ThinkProgress in a recent phone conversation that many members of her group were furious with the decision.
“[There were] some very charged responses and rightfully so from members of our group, and I understand where they’re coming from,” Bewley said.
But now, she says, they’re trying to understand Bredesen’s point of view, however reluctantly. “I do understand that he’s under an immense amount of pressure politically,” she said. “He was down in the polls that week already… and I think he felt a lot of pressure from the Blackburn campaign.”
But who, precisely, the announcement was supposed to appease is still unclear. In her stump speech, Blackburn still criticizes Bredesen over the decision, saying, as she did Sunday in Nashville, “We know that it took my opponent 88 days to figure out where he was on that issue, and only after the vote was called did he decide where he was.”
In recent weeks, Bredesen has been telling a new story on the trail in the hopes of reconnecting with women who have soured on him. As Yahoo News detailed earlier this month, Bredesen has begun to open up about his wife’s attempted kidnapping many years ago.
“The impediments that women have, and being taken seriously in their allegations and the stuff they go through in trying to report crime, this has been front and center for [my family] for a generation,” Bredesen said during a campaign stop in East Tennessee. “It’s not a subject that I am obtuse to at all. It’s built into the DNA of our household. And I don’t want anyone to ever doubt that I have zero tolerance for that kind of thing.”
But even that message is raising questions for some women, like 48-year-old Jennifer Murphy, who attended a Bredesen event at Nissan Stadium, where the candidate touted his work bringing the Predators and Titans to Nashville. Murphy, a lifelong Republican who voted for “an independent” in 2016, said she’d come to the event “more for [her] husband than anything.” This year, she plans to vote for Bredesen.
— TNGOP (@TNGOP) October 28, 2018
She likes his bipartisan spirit, she told ThinkProgress, but she was, nevertheless, feeling heavy-hearted over Bredeson’s proclamation of support for Kavanaugh.
“I’m not saying [Kavanaugh] did it, I’m not saying he didn’t do it, but I’m very torn on if [what happened to Ford] had happened to Bredesen’s wife or daughter, would he still feel the same way?” Murphy said. “If he says he would still feel the same way then that’s his decision.”
As Murphy’s husband and son arrived with platefuls of pork sandwiches and mac-and-cheese, she paused, before adding an argument I heard over and over again in recent days in Tennessee. “Just because somebody says they’re going to vote for something, though, you have to take the person as a whole and not just one thing,” she said.
It was this same argument that Francie Hunt, the executive director of Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, made when ThinkProgress interviewed her at her office in Nashville. Planned Parenthood came out against Kavanaugh early in the confirmation fight, with the group’s advocacy arm serving as one of the most visible anti-Kavanaugh forces in the country as the fight raged on.
Brett Kavanaugh’s record is clear — he would gut abortion rights, eliminate protections for people living with a pre-existing condition, and erode birth control access for millions of women in this country. #StopKavanaugh
— Planned Parenthood (@PPFA) September 5, 2018
And yet, in her office, where one wall was stacked high with bright pink “I stand with Planned Parenthood” shirts and another featured a bulletin board with pro-Planned Parenthood memorabilia and cards, Hunt was cautious.
“Obviously it was a disappointment and a blow to a lot of folks to hear that,” Hunt said, before quickly shifting the argument. “I think at the same time, people realize that, you know, Governor Bredesen is hands down a better candidate than Marsha Blackburn. Marsha Blackburn is the antithesis of what any progressive or even just fair-minded Tennessean would want in public office. So that kind of stands on its own.”
It was something Hunt said later in the interview, though, that helped clarify the group’s muted response: Planned Parenthood, she said, wants to be careful not to do anything that could seriously dampen voter turnout, explaining, perhaps in part, their decision not to condemn Bredesen’s decision more aggressively.
“Tennessee is 49th in the country for voter turnout,” Hunt said. “We dare not do anything to continue to provoke that behavior. It’s detrimental, and so nobody wants to jump on a sinking ship — a sinking ship called democracy.”
Later that same day, ThinkProgress caught up with Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini at her office. On her coffee table, there’s a mostly-finished puzzle of the state that seems purposefully left undone, with a few pieces from the edges artfully strewn around the table. She has a detailed map of the state broken down by county above her desk. She pulled up a chair in front of the puzzle, drinking water out of a mason jar.
— Planned Parenthood (@ppmn) September 7, 2018
Back when Bredesen made his fateful statement on Kavanaugh, he made a game attempt to have things both ways — to fit those loose puzzle pieces into a coherent picture. To that end, he referred to Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, as a “heroine.” The difference-splitting factor, he said, was simply the evidence against Kavanaugh, which to his mind did not “rise to the level” of disqualifying.
Asked about what she, as Bredesen’s ambassador, would say to the women grieving Bredesen’s decision, Mancini paused. Our conversation had been brisk, but she suddenly grew more circumspect.
“I would say I was disappointed by it, too,” she said. “And I hear them and I know exactly where they’re coming from. And some people were sad. Some were disappointed. Some got angry, and it’s just that I would say I hear you. I understand, and I’m with you.”
In that moment, Mancini, too, seemed to teeter on that edge between depression and acceptance. Here she was, memories of the trauma served up by the Kavanaugh hearings still fresh at hand, but nevertheless duty-bound to speak on Bredesen’s behalf despite his acclamation that he would have crossed party lines to put an alleged serial sexual abuser on the court.
“I also understand that Phil Bredesen is going to be a much better representative for women in Congress than Marsha Blackburn ever would be,” Mancini added after a moment. “And we have to look at the totality of that and where he’s coming from and where Marsha Blackburn has failed women over and over and over again.”
In a brief statement for this story, Alyssa Hansen, Bredesen’s press secretary, didn’t address Kavanaugh or the response to Bredesen’s decision at all. She said only, “Tennessee voters have a clear choice: they can either have more of the same old partisan shouting that’s coming out of D.C, or they can hire someone who has a track record of getting things done for Tennessee. It’s time for some fresh air up there, and Governor Bredesen is ready for the job.”