NASHVILLE — Former Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday formally launched his bid to succeed U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in 2018, describing himself as a practical problem-solver who can reach across the political aisle in Washington.
"I have the right kind of experience and the actual track record that it will take to start working across party lines to fix the mess in Washington and bring common sense back to our government," the Democrat said in the video posted on his campaign website.
The 74-year-old self-made millionaire's entry quickly drew praise from Democrats, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who had earlier weighed a bid himself.
But Bredesen is already drawing attacks from both state and national Republicans.
It's shining a national spotlight on a state where no Democrat has won a statewide race since Bredesen's re-election race for governor 11 years ago in which he won 69 percent of the vote and all 95 counties against a Republican state senator.
Jennifer Duffy, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, quickly changed her rating on the Tennessee Senate contest from "Likely Republican" to "Toss Up" because of Bredesen's entry into the race.
In his Thursday morning tweet, Berke, a former state senator who worked with Bredesen on education and other issues while serving in the Legislature, wrote: "A strong record raising funding and standards for education, a tremendous environmental steward, a Mayor who brought prosperity to Nashville, a brilliant Governor on fiscal issues.
"I support @PhilBredesen for #USSenate," Berke wrote.
That was soon followed by a blast from National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Michael McAdams, who called Bredesen "exactly the type of big government liberal national Democrats love.
"Bredesen's career has been a master class in failed Democratic policies" in areas ranging from immigration to taxes, McAdams charged.
A former Nashville mayor known as being a moderate, pro-business Democrat, Bredesen joins Nashville attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler in the Democratic primary.
In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, who hails from the tiny community of Frog Jump in West Tennessee, have declared.
Blackburn's campaign attacked Bredesen on Wednesday as news spread that he intended to announce his candidacy Thursday, after having been wooed for weeks by U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and others.
The Tennessee Senate seat will be open in 2018 after Corker, a Republican and a former Chattanooga mayor, announced he would not seek a third term. Corker, who initially sought to work with Donald Trump as both a candidate and later as president, had become increasingly critical of the president. While Corker maintains he could have won re-election, his ratings among Republicans plummeted.
Among those urging Bredesen to run is Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, a Democrat and one-time Bredesen critic who later patched things up with the former governor.
"The whole race is different today than it was yesterday," Freeman declared Thursday. "He will be a game changer."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who succeeded Bredesen as governor in 2011, told reporters Thursday he agreed with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that Bredesen, who founded a health care company, is a "formidable opponent and he obviously has a statewide name and he comes with a lot of credibility.
"I still think Tennessee is a Republican state," Haslam quickly added. But he said Republicans in Tennessee and other states should keep in mind that when they seek office they actually have two races to run. One is the party primary, the second being the general election. "We've seen what's happened in other races" Haslam said.
Bredesen, a Shortsville, N.Y., native, was raised by his mother and grandmother. He graduated from Harvard. In his video, he describes coming to Nashville where he found business success.
"I was the CEO of a successful public company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, one that I started on my kitchen table and grew to 6,000 employees," Bredesen said.
After an unsuccessful congressional bid, Bredesen later ran for mayor in 1991 and won.
He touts in the video how he helped foster growth in Nashville during his two terms and successfully recruited the National Football League's then-Houston Oilers franchise (now Tennessee Titans) as well as professional hockey, the Nashville Predators, to Music City.
He ran for governor in 1994 during his first term, winning the Democratic nomination but losing the general election to Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. In 2002, he ran again, narrowly defeating another Republican with the GOP at war with itself over Sundquist's efforts to pass a state income tax.
As governor, Bredesen grappled in his first term with soaring expenses in TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, and fought a pitched public relations and court battle with advocates as he successfully disenrolled an estimated 170,000 adult Tennesseans from the program.
He noted both that in his video as well as the cuts he was forced to make later during the 2008 recession, he was forced to slash spending.
"With a lot of hard choices, we managed our way through all of that," he said. "We didn't just get through it, we prospered."
The former governor also touted his successes in recruiting new businesses to Tennessee, citing Volkswagen's decision to build its auto assembly plant in Chattanooga among other achievements.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden was in no mood to buy in, charging Bredesen's record "represents the Tennessee of yesterday when Democrats labeled extreme unemployment rates, higher taxes and a total lack of government transparency as 'prospering.' A lot has changed in the last 16 years."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.