Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's U.S. Senate campaign is pushing back against attacks launched Friday by Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and fellow GOP officials during the Tennessee Republican Party's annual gathering.
"Governor Bredesen's message of working together to get things done is resonating with voters throughout the state who are tired of the hyper-partisan yelling and finger- pointing," said Alyssa Hansen, Bredesen's press secretary, in a statement.
Hansen called the "contrast between the Senate candidates increasingly clear — Tennessee voters can pick an eight-term Congresswoman who's been causing gridlock in Washington for the past decade and a half, or they can hire someone who is an independent thinker and has a proven track record of working across the aisle to get things done for Tennessee."
During the state GOP's annual Statesmen's Dinner, Bredesen came under fire from U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the keynote speaker, as well as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Blackburn herself as they hit at Bredesen's image as a moderate, which was reflected in a recent Vanderbilt University survey.
"We need to make sure we don't elect people who sound like Republicans, act like Republicans," Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican who served as dinner chairman, told the estimated 800-person crowd. "We need to make sure we actually elect Republicans to the United States Senate. We can never let [Senate Democratic Leader] Chuck Schumer get the gavel in the Senate."
Brentwood Republican Blackburn, who is seeking to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., pledged to "take our Tennessee values to Washington to help President Donald Trump, as my opponent likes to say, he is running to do the same thing."
But she said Bredesen is "running to bring back the values of Barack Obama, [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. And I think Tennesseans have [had] about enough of that."
Scalise took a similar line of attack.
Bredesen has said he won't reflexively oppose Trump, who last month came to Nashville and charged Bredesen would be a "tool" of Schumer's if Democrats win control of the Senate. The former governor has said he'll back Trump when he agrees and won't when he thinks the president is wrong.
"In the Senate, Governor Bredesen will vote in the best interests of Tennessee and Tennesseans. That's why he's applying for the job," Hansen said.
Corker: 'I call them like I see them'
This year's Republican dinner was the last as a senator for Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor. He devoted part of his speech to reviewing his career in politics and government service, a stint that included running unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1994 — he lost to Republican Bill Frist in the GOP primary — and later serving as state finance commissioner from 1995 to 1997.
"I still get somewhat emotional walking into the [state] Capitol," Corker said. "I love those days, even the problems we had. A lot of times I'd do my paperwork at 3 a.m. and [my wife] Elizabeth would bring me dinner some times and my girls, who were really young, would roller blade up and down the Capitol halls while they were waiting for me to finish something."
He later served a single term as mayor, which he described as "the best job in America. There's nothing like creating a vision for a city, working with people to make things happen and touching people in a real way."
Despite their sometimes harsh 1994 primary, Corker and Frist later became friends and it was then-Senate Majority Leader Frist who encouraged Corker, then no longer mayor, to run to replace him.
Corker now serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He and Trump have had a sometimes tumultuous relationship — then-presidential nominee Trump briefly considered Corker for a running mate in 2016 and later as U.S. secretary of state after the election.
But the two have since been at odds over any number of issues and have publicly criticized one another.
The most recent flare- up has been over Trump's imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, as well as the president's consideration of additional tariffs on imported vehicles and vehicle parts. The president, who ran on the issue and won key support in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, is seeking to revive U.S. steel production.
Corker says that will end up harming Tennessee, now a major auto-manufacturing state with plants dependent on global supply chains. He is now leading a Senate effort, opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to force approval of the tariffs by Congress. Last week, Corker, who has concerns about a trade war and impaired relations with allies, said Trump called him in an effort to get him to back off. The senator has characterized the conversation as "heartfelt."
While Corker has endorsed Blackburn, he says he won't attack Bredesen, whom he considers a friend going back to when Bredesen was Nashville mayor and Corker the state finance commissioner.
During Trump's recent Nashville rally, the senator was booed. There were no audible boos when he addressed Republicans at Friday's dinner.
"Serving in the United States Senate over the last 11 1/2 years — I've got seven months left — has been in fact the greatest privilege of my life," Corker said. "I've been able to see the greatness of our nation, not just our state. And I've been able to see the impact that our nation has on the world.
"When I ran for the Senate, I thought that the United States being involved in the world made the world safer for our own citizens," he added. "But I also believed it made the world a better place to live. And after visiting 75 countries on your behalf I am convinced more than ever that that is the case.
"We are in fact the greatest nation on earth. And without our leadership, the global economy wouldn't be what it is and our citizens would suffer," Corker said.
The senator told GOP stalwarts, "I have no idea what I'm going to do after the next seven months" when he leaves office. "I have no idea. What I do know is I'm going to do everything I can to continue to work to make this nation as great as I can."
And he acknowledged that his stances have sometimes caused heartburn for at least some fellow Tennessee Republicans.
"I know that you know that I'm independent," he said. "For some, I know that's been somewhat problematic. I call them like I see them. I wake up every single day to try to do what I think is best for our nation."