The path to winning a United States Senate seat in Tennessee for Democratic nominee Marquita Bradshaw is far bleaker in 2020 than it was for the first woman who was the nominee for the party in 1978.
That year, former state Democratic Party Executive Committee member Jane Eskind lost her Senate race to then-Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker by more than 176,000 votes and more than 15 percentage points.
The nominee, who went on to become the first woman to win an office statewide when she captured a seat on the former Public Service Commission in 1980, nevertheless won 28 of the state's 95 counties.
Bradshaw, in her shocking upset of Nashville attorney James Mackler (who finished third) in the Democratic primary, won 45 counties. But she will be challenged to win even a handful of counties in her bid to upset Republican nominee Bill Hagerty.
That's how much the political lay of the land has changed in the state in the 42 years since Democrats last nominated a woman for Senate.
When Eskind was the nominee, the state's other U.S. senator was a Democrat (James Sasser), the state's retiring governor was a Democrat (Ray Blanton), and Democrats were firmly in control of both houses of the state legislature.
But the state had voted for a Republican in two of the last three presidential elections, and the party was ascendant in the state. With only two exceptions (Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996), it has voted for a Republican in every presidential election since.
Today, the state has a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. senators (one a woman), seven (of nine) Republican members of the U.S. House and super majorities in the state Senate and state House.
Bradshaw is the first Black woman to seek statewide office, and her activism in a year in which a global pandemic and social justice protests have roiled the body politic undoubtedly contributed to her primary win.
A resident of Memphis, her strength in the primary was in West Tennessee, where she won 18 of the 21 counties of the state's Grand Division. Indeed, she won Shelby County (Memphis) by nearly 15,000 votes and captured more than 50% of the vote in Madison County (Jackson).
But of those 18 counties, all but two of them (Haywood and Shelby) are likely to cast more votes for Hagerty. After all, in most of the 16 other counties, the 15 Republican candidates combined for significantly more votes than the five Democratic candidates.
Any support for Bradshaw outside of West Tennessee is likely to come in the state's larger metropolitan areas. She won a plurality of Democratic votes in Hamilton County and in Rutherford County (Murfreesboro) and lost Knox (Knoxville) by 152 votes and Davidson (Nashville) by 3,007 votes.
She'll likely win Davidson in the fall, based on primary votes, but fall short in Hamilton, Knox and Rutherford counties. She might surprise Hagerty in several counties elsewhere, but they would be unlikely to be large enough to make much of a difference in the race.
Eskind, who lived in Nashville, was strongest in Middle Tennessee, but most of the counties she won there against Baker now usually vote Republican.
Some of her statements in 1978 would be far out of step with today's Democratic Party, which has at best been neutral on the violence which has rocked many of America's larger cities this summer and has advocated lesser sentences or jail-time for many crimes.
"I am appalled by the increase in violent crime throughout Tennessee," Eskind said at her campaign kickoff. "[C]rime has been steadily rising in our state."
Throughout the campaign, she also said Tennesseans felt "overregulated," said she favored "voluntary prayer in schools," suggested a limit on federal spending and endorsed a proposed tax cut by a Democratic senator, positions no one in her party would take today.
Eskind said at the time being the first woman nominee for the Senate was not a hindrance and even may have been a help.
"People are matter-of-fact about the fact I am a woman," she told United Press International. "It pulls me out of the crowd of candidates, but beyond that it is not a major issue."
Like Bradshaw, Eskind had never held public office before her Senate race. And like Bradshaw, that didn't worry her.
"I don't feel like a political or government novice," she told the Chattanooga Free Press. "An apprenticeship wasn't necessary to the two incumbent senators, and I don't feel it will be necessary for me."
One difference is that Eskind and her family were personally wealthy and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into her race. Bradshaw is not and cannot.
The Democratic candidate, who says she is running on an environmental justice platform, told Chattanooga Democrats last week she doesn't worry about Hagerty.
"I don't think about him," she said. "He doesn't represent the voices of the majority of Tennesseans."
As sincere as Bradshaw may be in believing that, we believe history says voters are likely to say differently in November.