Marsha Blackburn struggling to connect with establishment GOP donors in Tennessee

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is meeting resistance from wealthy Republican donors in Tennessee, an establishment-oriented crowd more comfortable with former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the conservative firebrand’s Democratic opponent in the state’s competitive, closely watched Senate race.

Republican financiers, titans of industry in Tennessee, are still gloomy about the retirement of Sen. Bob Corker, a conservative pragmatist. Many are sitting on their wallets as the crucial, 100-day mark to the midterm elections approaches. After a lifetime raising millions of dollars for GOP causes and candidates, some are even donating to Bredesen, whom they view as a centrist who will buck Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“He’s been somebody who is not partisan who gets things done. That appeals to me and to many other Republicans. We want somebody who is not an ideologue and not going to be partisan,” Tom Cigarran, a veteran GOP donor in Nashville, told the Washington Examiner Friday in a telephone interview. “Marsha Blackburn just isn’t that. She does not have a record of doing anything other than being a partisan ideologue.”

Cigarran, a retired healthcare executive, is chairman of the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League.

He and members of his family donated to Corker’s re-election bid last year, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman announced that he would retire in January after two terms. But this year, they contributed to Bredesen, 74, also the former mayor of Nashville, after Corker — who briefly reconsidered running for re-election — made a final decision to leave Congress.

Blackburn is raising money at a healthy clip. The congresswoman has the strong support of the kind of grassroots voter that is drawn to her Tea Party brand of conservative politics and is increasingly influential in statewide elections. And President Trump, who is popular in Tennessee, is in her corner.

Trump in May traveled to the state to headline a fundraiser for Blackburn’s campaign, and Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to do the same later this month. Pence is headed to Chattanooga, where Corker, a wealthy real estate developer, served as mayor before coming to Washington.

Despite the seal of approval from the White House, establishment Republicans that dominate the wealthy donor set in Tennessee have been slow to embrace Blackburn. The Haslam family, led by outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and his father, businessman Jim Haslam, is a notable exception. Corker, Republican sources say, has gone so far as to discourage some donors in his network from contributing to Blackburn.

“Corker supporters are disappointed that Bob didn’t run,” a GOP insider who urged the senator to run for re-election said. “It puts them in place where they have to make a decision between a Republican loyalty, as it relates to leadership in Washington, and Phil Bredesen, who they were perfectly comfortable with as mayor and governor.”

With so much GOP cash on the sidelines, Republican operatives are grumbling that the national party will be forced to funnel precious resources to Tennessee that could otherwise be invested in prime opportunities to flip seats and pad the party’s slim, 51-49 majority. Tennessee is a solid red state with a robust donor base that is capable of underwriting a competitive Senate race.

Some blame Corker, the governor, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., all with close ties to resistant financiers, for not doing enough to encourage deep-pocketed contributors to open their checkbooks for Blackburn, 66, who was elected to the House in 2002 and represents the decidedly conservative 7th Congressional District, situated just west of Greater Nashville.

“The party apparatus should not be spending in Republican states, but on challenger races,” complained one GOP operative, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “The Republican incumbent senators and the governor should solve this problem. Lamar is a senior statesman and a fantastic fundraiser — why not take control?”

Corker a while ago said that he supported Blackburn’s candidacy but made clear his backing came with limits.

For instance, he has ruled out campaigning for the congresswoman in any way that would require him to be critical of Bredesen. Still, Corker supporters dispute suggestions that he is working against Blackburn, emphasizing that the senator has donated the maximum amount to her campaign allowed under federal law.

The Blackburn campaign shrugged off concerns about resources, expressing confidence that it was on track to win in November even as a fresh poll from a Democratic firm showed Bredesen ahead 44 percent to 41 percent (a margin that matches some Republicans’ data). In May and June, Blackburn spent a combined 126 hours on the phone making fundraising calls.

The campaign didn’t deny the friction that exists between Blackburn and establishment Republicans in Tennessee, nor that it would love to have more support from that community. But Ward Baker, the congresswoman’s chief political adviser, said that that the governor and his father, key figures among donors, are being immensely helpful.

“The Haslam family has bent over backward for us and has done everything we’ve asked,” Baker said. “They’ve been wonderful.”

Whether more wealthy contributors follow suit could rest on which party appears to have the upper hand in the battle for the Senate majority.

Though the GOP’s House majority is in trouble, a favorable map has put Republicans on track to maintain control of the Senate, and possibly pick up seats. If that environment holds as Election Day nears, GOP donors in Tennessee who prefer Bredesen over Blackburn are more likely to keep their powder dry and vote for the Democrat.

Granted the shield of anonymity, a Republican strategist in Tennessee who backs Blackburn explained Bredesen’s appeal in a state Trump won by 26 points: “He’s not a typical Democrat. He was the best governor of my lifetime. I’m not going to vote for him, but I can see why other people would.”

Bredesen’s Republican supporters have faith that he wouldn’t kowtow to Schumer or side with Democratic liberals on Capitol Hill, a belief strengthened so far by a strategically pitch perfect campaign that has been fueled by television ads that have blanketed the state, absent much competition from the rather unknown Blackburn.

Based on Bredesen’s campaign and record in elected office, Republican donors are convinced he will support the confirmation of federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to succeed retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. The issue is becoming a major point of contention in battleground Senate races.

“If it looks like Tennessee will decide control of Senate, that, at the end of day, is what would bring a substantial number of donors around to Blackburn. But if it looks like Republicans will keep control regardless, then it’s much tougher for her,” a Republican operative with Tennessee ties said.

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