NASHVILLE — Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen clashed in the first of two televised debates Tuesday night in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race, sparring over opioid policy, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, federal tax cuts and a range of other issues.
In the combative one-hour exchange that was tense from the outset, Blackburn, a conservative Williamson County congressman, went on the offensive early and often against Bredesen, painting him throughout as an ally of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor, framed himself as an independent who would work with Republicans and look beyond partisan bickering to solve issues. Although his jabs were less frequent, he attacked the firebrand Blackburn as embodying the political divisions of Washington.
Tuesday's debate — sponsored by the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, NewsChannel 5, Nashville Public Television, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and Cumberland University — was a rare opportunity for the candidates to share the stage.
The race has gained national attention as Democrats look to regain control of the U.S. Senate, with polls showing a tight contest.
Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, and Tennessee is among a handful of key battleground states in the Nov. 6 general election. Early voting begins Oct. 17.
Blackburn mentions Schumer often; Bredesen says he won't vote for him
Out of the gate, Blackburn reminded voters how Bredesen called President Donald Trump's tax cut "crumbs" as she touted them as the main impetus behind the nation's strong economy.
"Phil Bredesen has said he would have voted against the tax cuts," Blackburn said, before reciting a line she used often. "Chuck Schumer has bought and paid for his campaign."
It was part of a larger plan by Blackburn to tie Bredesen to Democratic politics nationally as he seeks to win a state dominated politically by Republicans.
Bredesen said voters want to see the "dysfunction in Washington" come to an end, arguing that it has "become almost impossible to get things done."
And for the first time, he vowed to not vote for Schumer.
Bredesen said he would not be a "political lackey to anyone."
“We need to get new leadership," he said. "I will tell you right now that if I’m elected, and when I’m elected and go to Washington, I am not going to be voting for Chuck Schumer.”
But Blackburn said Bredesen had a choice to run as a Republican or independent if he wanted.
"But he didn't do that," she said.
Candidates frame the choice differently
Blackburn, who has hinged much of her candidacy on her allegiance to Trump, criticized Bredesen on everything from his party affiliation to his donations to former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I am running to take your Tennessee values to Washington, D.C. Phil has said he is running to end the dry spell for Democrats in Tennessee,” Blackburn said. “He says he thinks that D.C. listens too much to voters. I think D.C. needs to listen more to voters. That’s what draining the swamp is about.
“I want to build the wall. He calls that political theater. So there are some differences between us.”
Bredesen, meanwhile, attacked Blackburn for her work in Congress, including for receiving taxpayer-funded health care while working to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
“People certainly are going to have a choice," Bredesen said in his closing remarks. "If what the people of Tennessee want is more of that sort of hard-nose, partisan politics, take no prisoners, draw lines in the sands, make no compromises, I’m not your guy.
“There’s another person on the stage here who has been to Washington for the last 16 years and shows it,” he said, “and is frankly very good at it.”
He then highlighted his business and political experience and “an attitude of wanting to start making things happen, of getting things done.”
A clash on opioids
The candidates once again clashed regarding the ongoing opioid epidemic that contributed to 1,776 overdose deaths in 2017 in Tennessee.
Bredesen seized on the fact that Blackburn co-sponsored a measure in 2016 that critics said hamstrung the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“When she went to Congress 16 years ago she started to get very friendly with big pharmaceutical companies. They asked her and she passed this health bill that basically took much of the enforcement ability the DEA had to deal with these issues … away,” he said.
Blackburn responded, saying Bredesen’s comments were false. She noted that the legislation in question was passed unanimously in Congress.
Asked about Trump's Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh — who has faced multiple sexual assault allegations from women during his high school and college years — Bredesen said he wants to wait for Thursday when Christine Blasey Ford is expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bredesen criticized the Senate's nomination process, saying Democrats and Republicans have "turned it in to a circus."
"It just disgusts me. There's no other word for it," he said, arguing that too many Congress members, including Blackburn, announced their position before hearing testimony.
"The congressman announced she was for Kavanaugh within minutes of him getting appointed," Bredesen said.
"I think we need to listen to everyone, including Dr. Ford, and when that is over make the decision based on their competence, ethics and temperament."
Blackburn said she believes every woman who makes an accusation needs to be heard but that she would vote for Kavanaugh.
She called Kavanaugh an "eminently qualified jurist" and accused Democrats of "a PR stunt" to block his appointment.
"It is character assassination," she said. "This is something that is dirty politics at its worst."
Blackburn: Democrats want to take away Second Amendment rights
Another area of contention was gun control, with Blackburn touting her recent endorsement of the National Rifle Association, noting that she received an A rating and Bredesen got a D.
“The Democrats in D.C. are focused on taking away your Second Amendment right," Blackburn said.
"That is something that is paramount for them,” she said, once again likening Bredesen to Schumer.
While also touting his support for the Second Amendment, Bredesen said there are sensible solutions regarding guns, such as background checks during gun purchases.
“First of all, let me just underline that I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," Bredesen said. "I have been a gun owner for all of my life.
“I also believe one of the ways to preserve these rights is to put reasonable rules in place."
Among the only questions when the candidates did not criticize one another was when asked whether they agree with Trump’s claims that the press is the “enemy of the people” and on foreign policy. Both candidates said they disagreed about the president’s harsh comments on the press.
The candidates also agreed that Congress needs to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, with Bredesen calling it a “moral obligation” and Blackburn saying DACA recipients should be given a path for legalization.
The program aims to protect people brought to the country illegally as children.
Candidates' own takes from the debate
Minutes after the debate ended, the candidates continued their attacks against one another while speaking to reporters.
“I think that the people of the state saw two very different approaches to how you approach government and what you think ought to be done in Washington, D.C.,” Blackburn said, reeling off their divergent views on health care, tax cuts and the proposed wall along the southern border of the United States.
“(Bredesen) shows how out of touch he is with where Tennesseans are,” she said.
The former governor said he thought one of the main things viewers of the debate would take away was “how Washington she was.”
Bredesen has participated in dozens of debates throughout his runs for public office.
For Blackburn, the debate was the most significant she has ever participated in, given the high-stakes race and her personal experience. Her campaign says she last debated in 2002, when she first ran for Congress. Before that, she participated in one debate in her 1992 failed bid for Congress.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have each come to the Volunteer State in the lead-up to the election, with the former set to return Monday for a Blackburn rally in Johnson City.
Tuesday's debate was preceded by markedly different scenes. Bredesen briefly addressed a crowd of roughly 100 people, which was entertained by the Lebanon High School band before he entered Memorial Hall.
Minutes before, a mobile digital billboard could be seen circling the campus. The truck, funded by Tennessee Democrats, featured criticism of Blackburn.
When Blackburn arrived shortly before 5:30 p.m., she was greeted by about 35 supporters. She did not address the crowd and went in the rear door of Memorial Hall.
Reach Joel Ebert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29. Reach Joey Garrison at email@example.com or 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.