Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories profiling the major candidates for Tennessee's U.S. Senate and governor seats. Thursday we will profile Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen.
Marsha Blackburn folded her umbrella as she walked through the doors of a Murfreesboro, Tennessee barbershop in the heart of the quaint strip on one of the town's main drags on a recent stormy Friday. It was her third stop of the afternoon, leading up to her appearance at the nearby Coffee County Reagan Day Dinner to raise money for the county's Republican Party.
She had stopped by two specialty shops already, shaking hands, posing for photos and handing out cards to let people know she was running for the United States Senate. She had bumped into old friends and chatted with new ones. She was kind and talkative, making the groups hard to differentiate.
One of the barbers came forward, greeting Blackburn before the congresswoman introduced herself to a customer and held a baby. The stop was brief, but as she left, there was something the barber wanted to make clear.
"We pray for President Trump every day," she said. Her church had collected more than 200 signatures asking him and Vice President Mike Pence to come to their church. She wanted to ensure Blackburn fully supported the president, something Blackburn has continued to do at every opportunity.
Blackburn and her team reassured those in the barbershop that she was fully devoted to following the president and his agenda as she pulled out her umbrella and headed back into the dreary Friday afternoon. There was one more stop before the team hopped into its white Yukon and headed toward the Reagan Day Dinner: Rutherford County's Republican Party headquarters. The group walked down the block and into the county's GOP base of operations and was greeted by a gathering of countywide Republican leaders eager to welcome their Senate hopeful. In the background, behind the greeting party, a nearly life-size cutout of Donald Trump stood in plain view of the entrance, reminding anyone who came through that this was Trump country.
The conversation quickly turned toward the president and the need to continue to support his administration. The town was making it clear, if Blackburn wanted its votes, she had to be fully on board with Trump and his policies.
"My job is to represent and support the constituents, the people, Tennesseans. You run to be able to support Tennesseans," Blackburn said from the back seat on the ride from Murfreesboro to the Reagan Day Dinner. "When I talk to Tennesseans, they will say they want you to support President Trump. He's there to shake up D.C., drain the swamp, and to get power and money out of D.C. and back to the people. That's what Tennesseans want to be done. That's a good reason to be running."
Blackburn grew up in a conservative family in conservative Jones County, Mississippi.
"We were a very typical farm bureau, 4-H club, Southern Baptist, church family," she said.
The daughter of a salesman, she spent time throughout her childhood hopping into her father's truck and helping him deliver oil equipment to customers.
Blackburn followed her father's footsteps into sales. She went to Mississippi State University to study merchandising and consumer economics while minoring in classical piano. She would use that degree to open her own business, Marketing Strategies, a company focused on the retail marketplace.
She worked her way through college selling textbooks door to door for the Southwestern Company, a job at which she would meet her husband, a fellow salesman. She was one of the first female sales associates and one of the company's first female sales managers, she said. She also helped implement a division focused on women.
She credits the experience as one of the most influential in her life.
"You learn a lot about how to talk with people and how to present ideas and not to be fearful of being told 'no,'" she said. "I have found it to be very useful. I realize that it has had an incredible impact on my life and learning how to serve people."
Blackburn was influential in starting a young Republicans club in Tennessee. Shortly after she and her husband, Chuck, moved to the state, they began holding meetings at their home.
The practice went back to what her grandmother and mother had taught her as a child: be active in the community and give more than you take.
She went on to be chairwoman of the Republican Party in Williamson County and to help other leaders emerge in the party until 1992.
"I was trying to recruit someone to run in a congressional race and everybody told me I ought to be the candidate, so I did it," she said.
She lost the race but ran again for public office in 1998, this time winning a seat in the Tennessee Senate, where she would serve for six years and become the majority whip. Blackburn would run successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 when former Rep. Ed Bryant gave up his seat to run for the Senate — a seat ultimately won by Lamar Alexander. She was the first female elected from Tennessee without following a husband into office. She served in the state Senate from 1999-2003.
Blackburn believes there have been several significant achievements throughout her 20 years as a politician — her work as a pro-life advocate against Planned Parenthood, opposition to same-sex marriage and work to advocate for adoption — but there is one accomplishment she points to above the rest: staving off the implementation of a state income tax in Tennessee.
"There's no doubt, one of the biggest accomplishments was leading that fight against the imposition of a state income tax," she said.
Blackburn remains a representative serving Tennessee's 7th District, where she loyally champions conservative beliefs. If she is to win this race, it will be on that platform that has helped her win eight consecutive elections. She is in favor of tighter border security — she supports the president's mission to build a wall to protect the Southern border — has introduced legislation to increase data security and has worked to write health care legislation.
She also mirrors beliefs many Tennessee conservatives hold: she opposes abortion, the Clean Power Plan, the Affordable Care Act and denies the scientific opinion on climate change.
The tea party-supported conservative's stances and unwavering support of the Republican Party have earned her the support of Tennessee's most committed Republicans.
"I think the fact that she is such a patriot and a supporter of our president makes her an amazing candidate," Hamilton County GOP Chairwoman Marsha Yessick said. "She is also very dedicated to the state of Tennessee, and if she is elected to the Senate, she will do as much as she possibly can for the state and for the United States of America."
And now, for Blackburn, it's time to move to the Senate, where she believes she can help President Trump "drain the swamp," she said.
She sees the Senate as a dysfunctional body unwilling to support the president, and the constituents she has spoken to are tired of it. They support Trump and want leaders who do, as well.
"I have a desire to work for and on behalf of the people of this state to represent their views and ideas," she said. "The Senate needs some solid, strong conservative workers who are going to push to get things done and get them to President Trump's desk."
The Tennessee Republican is in a close race with former Gov. Phil Bredesen — a Democrat with high name recognition and approval throughout the state — in a race to succeed Sen. Bob Corker. Most early polls show the race as a toss-up, with Bredesen slightly ahead but well within the margin of error. At the end of March, Blackburn's campaign had total contributions of $4.95 million compared to Bredesen's $2.33 million. Bredesen had also contributed $1.4 million his campaign, while Blackburn had yet to contribute her own money to the campaign. (The next campaign finance reporting deadline is at the end of this month.)
If Blackburn wins, she will be the first woman to represent Tennessee in the Senate and could join gubernatorial candidate and personal friend Rep. Diane Black to form a duo of powerful women at the state's highest political level.
Blackburn sees federal tax cuts and immigration as major issues in the race, but the election could come down to whether Tennessee is ready to support a staunch conservative for the Senate, said Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.
"I think Blackburn is a little bit different than the Republican senators that Tennessee has sent to Washington recently. She's more combative and more conservative than say, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, or even going back to Bill Frist and Howard Baker," Kondik said. "I think she's probably to the right of those senators, and I think Tennessee is a state that has been known as sending more, if not moderate, at least deal-making Republicans to the Senate."
Conservative watchdog groups have consistently ranked Blackburn as one of the most conservative members of Congress during her career. Kondik believes the Senate race could be a tipping point for Tennessee. If Bredesen wins, it's business as usual, he believes, with a moderate once again winning a statewide race. However, a Blackburn victory could mean Tennessee politics have shifted further right.
"There are some Republicans — particularly people who like Corker — who think Blackburn is too conservative, even for Tennessee, and she might throw away the race against Bredesen," Kondik said. "That very well could happen, but it also may be that Tennessee has become more conservative in recent years and actually that Blackburn might be a better fit for the state and where it is now than Corker or Alexander are."
Blackburn stood upon the stage at the Coffee County Reagan Day Dinner that Friday evening and began her speech. Her team stood in the back ready to cheer as the congresswoman connected a series of talking points. It was a speech she has now delivered across the state as she works to entice Republicans to vote for her.
Before long, the speech honed in on the topic that has come to define Blackburn; it's one that could define the race.
"One thing Tennesseans want is someone to support Trump," she told the crowd. "I'll tell you now, Phil Bredesen is not going to support Donald Trump."
Name: Marsha Blackburn
Political party: Republican
Education: Mississippi State, major in merchandising and consumer economics, minor in classical piano.
Family: Husband, Chuck; son, Chad and wife Hillary; daughter, Mary Morgan Ketchel, and husband Paul; grandsons via Paul and Mary Morgan
Work: Owner of Marketing Strategies and politician since 1999.
Volunteer/community service: Service through public office and participates in church activities.
Why are you running for this office?
The Senate is dysfunctional and is in need of positive conservative change. I’m going to be a force for positive conservative change. I want to help the majority act like a majority and support Donald Trump.
What TV character do you most identify with?
If it is not news, the Food Channel, or HGTV, I am probably not watching, but as a working mother and grandmother, I have always been able to relate to the contestants on “Chopped,” who are under a tight time limit to get their dishes to the table.
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Sen. Bob Corker, National Security Adviser John Bolton, former Gov. Don Sundquist, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, more than two-thirds of Republican state senators, including Mike Bell, and more than three-quarters of Republican state representatives, including Mike Carter of Ooltewah.
Accomplishments/legislative achievements relative to politics:
Helped fight against implementation of state income tax in Tennessee, chaired investigation into Planned Parenthood, chairwoman of Communications and Technology subcommittee.
WHO’S RUNNING FOR U.S. SENATE
› Marsha Blackburn, Brentwood
› Aaron L. Pettigrew, Murfreesboro
› Gary Davis, Nashville
› John Wolfe, Chattanooga
› Trudy A. Austin, Crossville
› John Carico, Cleveland
› Dean Hill, Franklin
› Kevin Lee McCants, Murfreesboro
› Breton Phillips, Gallatin
› Kris L. Todd, Milan
Source: Tennessee secretary of state, division of elections
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of money the campaigns had raised. Those figures were the total cash-on-hand for the campaigns. The figures have been replaced with total contributions.