NASHVILLE — After unexpectedly winning Tennessee Democrats' contest for U.S. Senate last week, Marquita Bradshaw has already made history as the state's first Black woman nominee for statewide office.
But the Memphis environmental and social justice activist's outspoken embrace of a progressive agenda in areas ranging from "Medicare for all" to universal gun background checks marks an equally dramatic change: It's a 180-degree turn from statewide Democratic candidates' decades-long practice of largely running as political moderates.
"When we entered this race, many told us we didn't have a place here, and hardworking Tennesseans said different," Bradshaw said last week after she unexpectedly captured Democrats' nomination with 35% of the vote. "People want change, and they want a voice that will listen to them first and be able to implement policies that address the issues we are living today."
Bradshaw, who got into environmental issues because of an old U.S. Army facility crammed with hazardous waste near her Shelby County home, now faces Republican Senate nominee Bill Hagerty, a private equity fund manager and President Donald Trump's former U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Her primary victory was a major upset: James Mackler, a moderate white Democrat from Nashville who had raised $2.1 million and spent $1.5 million of it, was expected by many political observers to win. Instead, Mackler, an attorney and decorated Iraq war combat veteran, placed third with Robin Kimbrough, a Black female attorney from Nashville, coming in second.
Bradshaw, 46, who raised just $8,500 in the first quarter, attributed her victory to help from a "staff of volunteers across the state who networked in our communities" and relied on "environmental justice principles to shape a U.S. Senate platform [for] the first time ever in United States history."
She relied on social media, hosting meetings on Facebook in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, to reach out to primary voters.
With the help of Trump, Hagerty emerged from an epic and bloody GOP primary battle with Nashville physician Manny Sethi on Thursday in which the victor came away with 50.7% in the multi-candidate field.
Political contrasts between Bradshaw and Hagerty couldn't be sharper. For example, Bradshaw, a single mother, supports a $15 federal "living wage" and the Black Lives Matter movement, which reemerged amid social and racial unrest after the death of a Black Minneapolis man in police custody last spring.
Hagerty has denounced the "angry liberal mob." During the campaign, he abruptly resigned his seat on a corporate board after it was revealed the company announced its support for Black Lives Matter. Hagerty opposes raising the federal minimum wage, Medicare for all and universal gun background checks.
The list of differences goes on and on.
No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in Tennessee since Al Gore's 1990 reelection bid. In 2018, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a moderate who won the governor's mansion in 2002 with some Republican support, became the most recent in a lengthy line to lose a Senate race, in his case a fierce battle with Republican Marsha Blackburn. She won with 54.7% of the vote.
In 2006, then-U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a Black Memphis Democrat, got the furthest in his battle with Republican Bob Corker of Chattanooga, getting 48%. Until Bredesen, it was the last time Democrats seriously mounted an effort, although over the past quarter century they have tried to have mainstream candidates that wouldn't harm down-ballot contests for the state Legislature and Congress.
That failed in 2012 when an anti-gay rights and anti-abortion Mark Clayton, who spent virtually nothing, captured the party's nomination in 2012. In a low point for Democrats, then-Sen. Corker thumped him in a race in which Clayton only got 30.4% of the vote.
Bradshaw's primary victory came as a surprise to many, including Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
"I can't explain it," said Syler, who was chief of staff for then-U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, running many of the Democrat's political campaigns and often sought out by others for his political advice. "The real failure of the Mackler campaign was to not get their message out. He's got an incredible story" as an attorney who quit his job after 9/11 and joined the military and became a combat helicopter pilot.
Syler said his guess is "basically everyone went to the polls on the Democratic side not recognizing any names. And I can't explain why they went to this one or that."
Bradshaw said Thursday night that she expects to continue campaigning as she has "utilizing the tools, whether we have the social distance, Zoom, Google Talk or whatever to connect with voters."
"The formula for Democrats has generally always been to be a moderate, to kind of be what James Mackler was setting himself up to do — a veteran, a moderate, someone in Mackler's situation who can talk about his faith and all of those things," Syler said. "But in the end this was always going to be an almost impossible hill for Democrats to climb.
"That moderate formula you might argue hasn't been working for candidates," Syler said. "So why not try something different?"
State House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat who made history herself by becoming the first Black to lead Democrats, said Bradshaw got involved in the environmental justice movement because of sickness caused by the old Army depot where she had grown up.
Describing Bradshaw as passionate and respectful, Camper added, "Young people, you know, are at the point right now where they want change. So she's like any other person of that time."
Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini said, "I think that the people who are saying that she won only because her last name started with a 'B' are woefully uninformed and don't know the grassroots campaign she actually ran. She's an organizer. I also think that Democrats are hungry for diversity and inclusion. That's who we are."
So what does it mean having Bradshaw as the party's standard bearer?
"She's exactly what we need right now," Mancini said. "She embodies who the Democratic Party is. She embodies our values, fighting for every Tennessean no matter who you are, what you look like, where you live, how you pray, who you love. She's going to be fighting with everyone to have the opportunity for a better life. And that's really exciting."
State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Black Chattanooga Democrat, recalled meeting Bradshaw once, saying she is a "very intelligent, nice lady."
Hakeem said that while he believes Memphis and West Tennessee "played a big part in her winning the primary," Bradshaw's primary victory "says that any candidate, particularly those who have been out there letting people know who they are and what they're about, not to count them out. And I think in the environment that we're in today in America, some of the people who have been, we'll say, stalwarts in these Democratic parties, she represents that constituency. Particularly African-American women."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.