Democratic Senate candidate and former governor Phil Bredesen easily rolled to a primary victory in Tennessee on Thursday night with nearly 92 percent of the vote over his two virtually unknown opponents. He’ll face Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who also won her primary on Thursday, in a bid to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Corker, who said he wouldn’t campaign against Bredesen in the general election.
A Bredesen win is practically required in order for the Democrats to have any hope of winning back the Senate in a year where they’re defending 10 seats in states won by Donald Trump in 2016. Luckily for them, he’s extremely well-known among Tennesseans: he was the mayor of Nashville through much of the ‘90s, and then won served two terms as governor beginning in 2002. When Bredesen won re-election in 2006, he did so by carrying all of Tennesee’s 95 counties. And the very early polls taken before the primary show he still does have some popularity: he’s led Blackburn in the single-digits.
Bredesen doesn’t, however, have the advantage of incumbency that other red-state Democrats do, which makes him a perfect test case for a pretty simple question: How useful are centrist Democrats in 2018?
Bredesen, a former healthcare executive before he entered politics, is unsurprisingly running on his bipartisan credentials. “As governor of Tennessee, Phil balanced eight consecutive budgets, opposed a state income tax, kept the state government afloat during the Great Recession, reined in out-of-control spending, and championed education policies that made Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the history of the Nation’s Report Card,” his website bio says. “In the State Capitol, he worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle to set aside partisan politics in order to advance sound policies that benefited all Tennesseans.”
While Bredesen is decidedly not a left wing Democrat and seems perfectly content not to run as one, he has made some interesting noises in the past. He gave an interview to the Nashville Ledger in 2013 which, while also pushing a hefty dose of fear-mongering about the debt, echoed a lot of the criticisms of the Affordable Care Act from the left. “My concern was, I really do believe that there’s a level of health care that we treat functionally as a right of citizenship in this country,” he said. “And I thought the Affordable Care Act, while it expands coverage, it didn’t do much about the cost side of the equation and fell short of recognizing that, even when it’s implemented, there will remain large numbers of uninsured people in this country.”
In the same interview, Bredesen called a national health system akin to the one proposed by Harry Truman a “worthy goal,” adding, “I think we’re eventually going to get to something like [universal healthcare or Medicare for all].”
The work Bredesen did on healthcare as a governor is another thing. After taking office in 2003, he hired a consulting firm to make recommendations for changes to TennCare, the state Medicaid program, which ultimately resulted in the state booting hundreds of thousands of people off the program and reducing benefits for others. Between January 2009 and April 2010 alone, approximately 100,000 people were dropped from the program. As NPR reported at the time, 37,000 of those “relied on the state program for all their health care needs.”
We sent an email to Bredesen’s campaign asking if he would support the current Senate Medicare for All bill if he’s elected, and will update if we receive a response. In June, he told the National Journal: “Saying you are for single-payer or not is like saying are you for war or not. Well, tell me a little more.” (Seems self-explanatory.)
Healthcare aside, it’s clear what kind of Democrat Bredesen is: one who would’ve cleaned up in a year like 1992 or even 2008, but whose electability is completely uncertain in 2018. And considering how well-known in the state he is, as well as Tennessee’s conservative bent—Republicans have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature and hold the governor’s mansion, and Trump won the state by 26 points in 2016—it’s fair to say that if a wealthy, popular former governor can’t win this seat by running on bipartisanship and debt-reduction, it’s time to ditch that platform forever.