MEMPHIS — As Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic governor of Tennessee now running for Senate, was wrapping up a voter forum at Rhodes College recently, the liberal-leaning mix of students, faculty and local residents began to grow restless from his unapologetically moderate brand of politics.
Finally, an audience member stood up and drew scattered applause by saying that supporters of Mr. Bredesen were “a little bit troubled” by his vow to back President Trump when he thinks the president is right. On what issues, the candidate was asked, would you support or oppose Mr. Trump?
It was the political equivalent of a batting practice pitch, a friendly heave served up so Mr. Bredesen could reassure supporters in his hotly contested race — and perhaps catch the attention of progressives further afield.
But Philip Norman Bredesen Jr., a low-key 74-year-old wealthy former health care executive, has no appetite to go viral.
After allowing that some people “have very emotional reactions” to Mr. Trump, he said it was important “to knock that stuff back and try to think carefully about issues.” Then he discussed trade policy.
In this year of liberal resistance, when Democratic passions are running high and Senate candidates like Beto O’Rourke of Texas are attempting to harness that energy, Mr. Bredesen is doing just the opposite. He is hoping to lower temperatures, blur the lines between himself and Republicans, and run on local issues against Representative Marsha Blackburn in a state that Mr. Trump carried by 26 points.
It is a throwback campaign, the sort that Southern Democrats used for years to distinguish themselves from their national party, in a region that has moved decisively away from its political roots. But as Democrats eye winning back some of the South’s fast-growing states, Mr. Bredesen’s approach also represents a well-timed political science test of which strategy is more effective: his brand of political vanilla that reflects the history of the state, or the more unrepentant, and perhaps more inspiring, brand of liberalism on offer from Mr. O’Rourke.
In fact, Mr. Bredesen may be running the most cautious, high-profile Senate campaign of any Democrat in the country.
He came out in support of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — after the searing Senate hearings. He has aired a commercial in which he shoots sporting clays and trumpets his “support of the Second Amendment” as well as his N.R.A. A rating as governor. He casually scorns his party’s drift left and leaders like Chuck Schumer in language more often heard from Republicans.
“I remember sitting down here as governor during the time of the Great Recession, where, I mean, there’s just a lot of pain, and everybody wants to talk about what bathroom somebody’s using or something, you know?” he said in an interview, when asked why this state had turned right. President Obama, he added, was “a very smart guy, but kind of elitist in his leanings.”
This style helped Mr. Bredesen win the governorship twice in the previous decade, convincing him that he could capture the seat currently occupied by his close friend, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican who retired rather than bite his tongue about Mr. Trump.
Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, Mr. Bredesen saw his polling sag as conservative-leaning voters aligned themselves with the Republicans. The race has tightened again, according to public and private surveys, but the court battle was a boon to Republicans here.
Ms. Blackburn, a hard-line conservative from exurban Nashville, has delighted in the opportunity to nationalize the race: at a debate earlier this month she referred to Hillary Clinton over 20 times.
Tennessee has shifted dramatically to the right in the last decade. Its congressional delegation and state legislature have become dominated by Republicans with Democrats all but extinct outside Tennessee’s major cities.
That may be why Mr. Bredesen has for months, in public and private, repeated the same assessment of his chances: if it is a contest between him and Ms. Blackburn, he will win. But should the race be framed as a Republican versus a Democrat, he will lose. And it’s why his friend Mr. Corker originally felt him out about running as an independent to avoid the party-label stigma, according to officials familiar with the conversation.
“He’s well-respected, he’s popular, he was a good governor, but he’d sit in between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the state’s senior Republican. “And unfortunately for him, the Kavanaugh nomination reminds people of that. I have Republicans and independents who are uncomfortable with Trump and maybe even uncomfortable with Marsha but they are furious about Kavanaugh.”
But if that anger propels Ms. Blackburn to victory, 2018 will be remembered as the year Tennessee made a sharp break from its tradition of electing pragmatic leaders — a tradition that has endured even as the state has been tugged right.
This race, therefore, is not just a clash between a centrist Democrat and a conservative Republican. It is a test of whether Tennessee will remain politically distinct or become just one more reliably red bastion, like Mississippi to the south or Kentucky to the north.
“In our mind we think we’re a little more progressive, a little more advanced, but I don’t know,” said Raumesh Akbari, a Democratic state legislator in Memphis.
Traditional alliances fray
To understand the race between Mr. Bredesen and Ms. Blackburn, you have to understand the political history of this 495-mile-long state.
“It all goes back to the Civil War,” said Mr. Alexander.
That can be said for much of the South, of course, but the war shaped Tennessee differently than its neighbors. Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy and the first one to rejoin the Union, having sent more troops to fight for the north than any other southern state.
That is because its mountainous east was inhospitable to plantation slavery and remained largely loyal to the union — and to the party of Lincoln. Voters in the state’s eastern-anchored second Congressional District have not elected a Democrat since before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter.
“My father also used to say that for 75 years after the War, the Union pension checks continued to come into east Tennessee,” recalled Al Gore, the former vice president and senator from Tennessee, whose political baptism by fire came in his father’s unsuccessful run for re-election to the Senate in 1970.
But Democrats were ascendant in the middle and western tiers of the state and the party had a hold on politics until 1966, when Howard Baker won a Senate seat and ushered in a half-century of robust political competition.
“The competition attracted talented people into public life,” said Mr. Alexander.
It took skill, he said, to forge coalitions between the old-guard Republicans in the east, the ancestral Democrats in the middle and west and the newly empowered black voters.
This demand created an incentive for Tennessee’s politicians to hug the political center and kept the state from lurching to the right like other Southern states.
“A kind of balance of power, equilibrium, set in,” Mr. Gore said.
Tennessee elected a stream of standout statewide officials like Mr. Baker, Mr. Gore, former Senators Bill Frist and Fred D. Thompson who “all made Tennessee look good on the national stage,” said Representative Steve Cohen, a wily Memphis Democrat who served in the state legislature before coming to Washington.
And for four decades, starting with Mr. Alexander, the two parties traded the governorship back and forth every eight years as the state became an auto-making powerhouse and Nashville boomed into the crane-filled destination city for tourists and transplants it is today.
Even as the state grew more forbidding for Democrats, a breed of business-aligned Republican moderates kept winning. Today, Tennessee is led by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican and heir to the Pilot Oil fortune, and represented by Mr. Corker and Mr. Alexander in the Senate. It is a lineup that is more garden party than tea party.
“We have never elected a fire-breathing Republican statewide,” state senator Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, noted over a meat-and-three-sides lunch in his city one day last month.
Up the hill, in the state capitol, Mr. Haslam said Mr. Bredesen was attempting to place himself as the rightful heir to the state’s mantle of moderation.
“He’s making the argument, ‘I’m another pragmatic in the tradition of Tennessee leaders, I’m going to do what’s best for Tennessee,’” said Mr. Haslam. “And that’s always been a good argument in Tennessee.”
Yet the same forces — the rise of tribalism, the decline in regional media and the Democrats’ shift left — that have polarized politics across the South have taken root here.
And, Mr. Haslam added, there are a growing number of voters in the state who were raised elsewhere and care little about local history. Many came to Tennessee for its favorable business climate and lack of an income tax.
“Our tea party here is made up of people that didn’t grow up here,” he said, recalling how, when he ran in 2010, he would see voters wearing Yankees, Cubs and Bears hats and offering a common refrain: “We left for a reason.”
Trump looms over election
Ms. Blackburn, 66, has heard the critique of her combative style of politics before, often secondhand from the state’s center-right business elite: she just does not measure up to Tennessee’s lineage of statesman.
She does not hesitate to call this line of attack unfair.
“We’ve never had a female U.S. senator,” Ms. Blackburn said in a cafe in Franklin, a quaint town in her middle Tennessee district. “So that is something that would be new.”
She first made her name as a state legislator, egging on local conservative talk radio hosts and battling her own party’s attempt to implement an income tax. She became even better known after coming to Congress in 2003 thanks to her frequent cable-news appearances.
But she has never been a nominee for statewide office and she is plainly tugged between competing impulses that reflect the larger uncertainty about Tennessee’s place on the political spectrum: should she tone down her hard-line tendencies to appeal to a broader audience in the fashion of other leaders, or should she amplify her partisan style to energize Mr. Trump’s enthusiasts in a state he would likely win again in 2020?
After invoking her gender without being prompted, she quickly backed away from what could be seen as making any claim of misogyny.
The skepticism about her, she said, is not based on gender. “It is rooted in unfamiliarity,” she insisted.
Ms. Blackburn also readily acknowledged that she is more conservative than Mr. Corker and Mr. Alexander — “I am to the right of them,” she said — but said she can work across party lines.
“I have a long history of bipartisan accomplishment,” she said.
And on Mr. Trump, she is eager to tie herself to him on policy but seems to recognize she must not fully condone his personal conduct.
“Do I think he’s a good man?” she says, repeating the question. “I think he is a really good example to legislators on how to make a promise and keep it.”
The day after Mr. Bredesen spoke at Rhodes College last month, Ms. Blackburn campaigned at a tailgate before a University of Memphis football game. Before posing with the cheerleaders — who belted out a “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” chant — the congresswoman encountered a supporter named Teri Melkent.
Ms. Melkent used to work in the medical device industry, but now stays home with her two children. She cares deeply about immigration, her “right to bear arms,” and thinks Mr. Trump is “doing a great job.” And the Democrats’ treatment of Justice Kavanaugh? “An absolute, ridiculous travesty,” she said.
Ms. Melkent lives in Germantown, a comfortable Memphis suburb that was on the front end of the state’s shift toward the G.O.P.
But Germantown is also home to James S. Dickey Jr., a certified public accountant who voted Republican up until 2016, when he could not stomach Mr. Trump.
“I think he’s an idiot,” Mr. Dickey said of the president, upon leaving Mr. Bredesen’s college forum.
Mr. Dickey, who’s backing Mr. Bredesen, predicted “a lot of Republicans will end up voting for Phil.”
Mr. Bredesen, who still speaks with the bluntness of the boardroom he led at HealthAmerica Corporation before he became Nashville’s mayor, said revulsion toward Mr. Trump among Democrats had given him a wide berth.
“I’m in the fortunate position that people on the left are enraged enough that they will find almost anything I do, with the D after my name, acceptable,” he said.
This assumption, along with his support for Justice Kavanaugh, irritates some Democrats, and Mr. Bredesen lost some volunteers after the court fight.
But progressive leaders here are urging their allies not to walk away.
“You can get on your political high horse but the consequences are pretty severe,” Ms. Akbari said, invoking the cost of purity in the 2016 election.
Mr. Bredesen must maximize his support among African-Americans, who make up about 16 percent of the state’s electorate, overwhelm Ms. Blackburn in Tennessee’s largest urban areas and split or at least hold down his losses with the rural voters in the middle and western part of the state.
There are many younger Republicans in the state who think this is fantasy, that no Democrat is viable here.
“I always believed that Blackburn would be successful, in part due to our move from a conservative state with a shade of blue dog to a single-party state today,” said Mark Braden, a Nashville-based Republican strategist, alluding to Tennessee’s faded brand of moderate Democrat.
Mr. Gore, and more than a few of his Republican friends in Nashville’s well-heeled precincts, do not believe it.
“The political culture of the state writ large has a lot of resilience, and still rewards candidates in either party who reach out beyond their party boundaries and try to frame a reasonable-sounding message that isn’t too hot, isn’t too left, isn’t too right, but really focuses on kind of a common-sense approach to governing well,” the former vice-president said near the end of an hourlong conversation in his Nashville office last month.
But Mr. Alexander, who said he “might” run again in 2020, sees the ending of that cycle of history.
“We’ve sort of gone the full circle back to a one-party system,” he said, before posing a question to which he seemed to know the answer.
“If Tennessee becomes a one-party Republican state do we lose that competition that I think created a stream of talented people over the last 50 years?”