President Donald Trump won 92 of 95 counties in Tennessee during the 2016 presidential election, a state that is increasingly becoming more conservative.
It would conceivably be a no-brainer that Republicans are a virtual lock to maintain control of the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker (R), who announced his retirement last year.
But that would be incorrect. In fact, national observers believe the race for the seat will be uncomfortably close for Republicans. That begs just one question: How is that possible in a GOP-dominated state?
Who is the Democrat running for the seat?
The Democratic Party’s “secret weapon” of sorts is former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a popular Tennessee politician with crossover appeal as a moderate Democrat. He also served two terms as mayor of Nashville in the 1990s.
In fact, during his time in Nashville, Bredesen was more than just popular. During his re-election for governor, he won each of Tennessee's 95 counties, an inconceivable feat in modern politics.
Bredesen's powerhouse name, impressive portfolio, and status as an "outsider" — he has never served in Washington — will certainly make him a formidable challenger to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), who most believe will win the GOP primary in the race. She enjoys support from President Trump and Gov. Bill Haslam (R).
How can Bredesen win?
He's popular and has a strong track record. During his time as governor in the mid-2000s, Bredesen's approval ratings soared to 65 percent, securing the landslide victory for his second term.
That support remains today, despite his absence from politics for most of the 2010s. A poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University last month showed that Bredesen commands a solid 10-point lead over Blackburn. The poll found that 45 percent of registered voters would support Bredesen, with 35 percent vowing to support Blackburn, and 17 percent saying they're undecided.
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Bredesen with a slimmer lead — just 5 points — over Blackburn. However, the lead is still significant, yet one Blackburn could easily overcome.
Bredesen also has popular Democrats, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, in his corner ready to strengthen his war chest. Just last month, Biden was in Tennessee to boost the former governor.
Bredesen's brand of politics might also give him a boost this November. He is seen more as a pragmatic leader as opposed to Blackburn, who is highly supportive of Trump and is seen as a hardline ideologue in Congress. Politico said "Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans" will support Bredesen, giving him crossover appeal that reaches moderate Republicans.
What has Corker said?
Since Corker is the one willingly giving up his seat at the close of his second Senate term this November, what does think of the race? He's been slow to voice support for Blackburn while seemingly supporting Bredesen.
Corker said last month he believes Bredesen has "real appeal" to Tennessee Republicans, but cautioned that it may not be enough to secure victory in November.
"I think he’s got real appeal — I don’t think it, I know it. The question is, in a state like ours that is still a red state, is it enough? I don’t know the answer to that," he said, according to the Tennessean.
What are outcome predictions?
Despite Bredesen's current lead in the polls, political expert Larry Sabato still believes the GOP nominee, whomever it may be, will likely find victory in November. According to his current "Crystal Ball" Senate map, he predicts Tennessee is a "lean GOP" state.
However, that prediction is a departure from just one month ago when he listed the Volunteer State as "likely Republican."
Why is Tennessee so important?
If Republicans want to maintain their majority in the Senate, they will need to retain control of Corker's seat. Republicans currently hold just a one seat majority in the Senate: 51 seats are held by Republicans, 47 by Democrats and two by Independents.
This November's election will see 33 Senate seats up for grabs, 23 of which are currently held by Democratic incumbents. Of the remaining 10 seats, Republicans control eight and Independents hold two.
That means if Republicans are to maintain their slim majority, they cannot afford to lose any seats. What's worse: If Democrats are able to flip Corker's seat in the heart of the GOP, then they likely have the enough support nationwide to flip the Senate back to their control.