"Marsha Blackburn ran an outstanding campaign from start to finish. When the pundits had all but counted her out, she just fought harder. Marsha is the conservative champion we need in Washington to fight for the Trump agenda. She fought for Tennessee values in the legislature and in Congress. She will now continue the fight as Senator. I am grateful she will join a Senate majority in Washington committed to putting America First. Having served at the state level as well as the federal level, Marsha will help bring power back to the states and truly make America great again." -Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge)
NASHVILLE - Republican Marsha Blackburn on Tuesday won Tennessee's open U.S. Senate seat, beating former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen to become the first woman in the state's history elected to the Senate.
Blackburn, the sometimes fiery conservative U.S. representative from Brentwood, won the brutal contest to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga. Figures from the Tennessee Secretary of State's website late Tuesday night showed Blackburn ahead with 1,172,433 or 55.8 percent of the vote to Bredesen's 900,309 or 42.85 percent of the vote with 85 percent of precincts reporting.
In declaring victory, Blackburn, 66, said voters "have sent a message that it is time to take Tennessee conservative values to Washington and keep our state and our country moving forward."
She told Republicans, "I am so incredibly grateful to each of you for doing your part, standing with me, staying strong and turning out the vote. It is such an honor to be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. I am going to work as hard for you as you have worked for me."
Bredesen, 74, conceded the contest.
He told supporters that he had tried to call Blackburn to congratulate her but he was unsuccessful because the lawmaker was on stage speaking to supporters. As some audience members booed, Bredesen quickly interjected, saying, "Elections are over. Move on."
Bredesen thanked what said were an estimated 5,000 people who had worked as volunteers in his campaign. "You have gone above and beyond," he told them. "...Please do not be discouragednever ever give up."
Their monthslong battle was one for Tennessee's history books, not only because Blackburn is now the first Tennessee woman to win a Senate seat, but because the contest became part of a national struggle over which party controls the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress next year.
And the contest also answered the question, at least for now, as to whether Tennessee Democrats, even with a highly credible candidate who had some appeal to moderate Republicans and independents, could win a contest in a red state that has gone heavily Republican in recent years. In 2016, Tennesseans voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump.
As such, the tight race drew national attention while also also blitzing through previous Tennessee campaign spending records. Latest Federal Election Commission tallies show at least $85 million was spent. Of that, $58 million came from warring outside Republican and Democrat groups, spent mostly on television, radio, digital and direct mail attacks.
While Blackburn had opened up a lead in a number of recent polls, the contest remained tight enough that on Sunday night, it prompted a rally in Chattanooga by Trump - his third in the state on behalf of Blackburn. Joined by Vice President Mike Pence, Trump repeatedly blasted Bredesen, who had promised voters to serve as a middle-of-the-road, get-it-done senator and make decisions in Washington based on what's best for Tennesseans.
"If you want to stop the liberal agenda of high taxes and high crime, you need to vote for Marsha," Trump told thousands attending a rally at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena as he, Blackburn and Pence charged that Bredesen, if elected, would become beholden to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
He and Pence hit illegal immigration hard, raising fears about the caravan of Central Americans making their way slowly to the U.S. border where they want to seek asylum. And the president as well as Pence struck other Trump themes such as building a border wall - which Bredesen said could be done more cheaply through the latest technology - and last year's tax cuts which Bredesen once said amounted to "crumbs" for most Americans.
Throughout the campaign, Blackburn, who is in her 16th year in Congress, aligned herself closely to Trump on most issues, only voicing concerns at times, such as on the president's tariffs on important goods and his declaration that he could overturn birthright citizenship by executive order for children born here to undocumented immigrant mothers.
The contest took any number of turns, with earlier polling showing Bredesen, who served two terms as governor from 2003-2011, as well as Nashville mayor before that, leading. Political observers had called it a toss up.
Meanwhile, Corker, who has feuded publicly with Trump, nominally supported Blackburn but announced he would not campaign against Bredesen, a personal friend with whom he built a relationship with while they worked together to recruit a Volkswagen plant to Chattanooga.
A number of moderate Republicans openly backed Bredesen, some even hosting fundraisers for him. Blackburn, meanwhile, stayed close to the GOP's base and many of Trump's stances.
But things began to turn in Blackburn's favor after Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bredesen said he would not automatically reject Republican nominees and wanted to know more about Kavanaugh before deciding.
Later, after Kavanaugh was accused by a woman of sexually assaulting her at a party decades ago while both were teens, Bredesen said he wanted to await a subsequent hearing before saying whether he would support the nominee.
After the hearing and just before the Senate vote, Bredesen announced that if he were in office he would vote for Kavanaugh. It infuriated a number of Democrats, prompting some volunteers to quit working on his behalf. Meanwhile, Blackburn and fellow Republicans said Bredesen was attempting to fool Tennesseans.
Bredesen later said he thought he'd weathered the storm.
But on Election Day, Blackburn prevailed.
Blackburn, who has insisted on calling herself "congressman" and not "congresswoman" while serving in the House, quipped to supporters that, "Now, you don't have to worry if you're going to call me congressman or congresswoman or Congress Lady. Now, senator will do."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.