NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – About 1.38 million Tennesseans have cast early or absentee ballots, a nearly presidential-year-level turnout that the candidates in a tough U.S. Senate contest are both touting as positive for their Nov. 6 prospects.
Compared with the early voting period that concluded Thursday, about 1.68 million ballots were cast early in President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, or 18 percent higher than this year. In former President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election year, 1.46 million people hit the polls early, only about 5 percent higher than this year.
The 2014 midterm elections drew less than half as many early and absentee voters as this year. The 2014 ballot also offered voters little to get excited about, while 2018 includes high-profile, open races for Senate and governor.
In the Senate race, Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s campaign has pointed to early totals in Democratic areas and other counties where he performed well in his re-election for governor in 2006, when he won every county. Turnout has topped 162,200 in Nashville’s Davidson County, only 7 percent off from 2016 levels. Memphis’ Shelby County topped 188,600, about 22 percent below 2016.
Recent polls have shown U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn taking a lead. But Trump’s upcoming third visit to Tennessee on Sunday and millions of dollars in new outside spending from both sides this week suggest the race remains close.
“I’m old enough to remember 2016 and how far off the polls were in lots of places,” Bredesen told reporters this week. “I’m very comfortable based on our stuff as to where I am. It is a very close race.”
Blackburn has said she’s seeing enthusiasm statewide, including from “Trump Democrats.” She’s hoping that because turnout is within striking distance of 2016, when Trump won Tennessee by 26 points, she will be benefit as the president’s candidate.
“We’ve got good bipartisan support,” Blackburn told reporters this week. “The nice thing is, it grows every single day.”
As the race hits its final weekend, Blackburn has turned to immigration and Trump’s upcoming Chattanooga visit to rile her base, while Bredesen is making his final pitch that he would be an independent voice in Washington.
Blackburn and a political group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are running separate ads attacking Bredesen about the northbound migrant caravan in southern Mexico, still far from the U.S. border. Bredesen has said a few thousand people without weapons slowly making their way to the border of the U.S., the strongest country in the world, are “not some huge national emergency like suddenly Russia decided to threaten us with nuclear weapons or something.”
Blackburn’s ad follows the lead of Trump, who has floated the idea that the caravan contains gang members and “Middle Easterners,” while later acknowledging there was no proof of those claims. Blackburn’s ad insinuates those groups are in the caravan, in addition to “known criminals” and “possibly even terrorists.”
The strategy has drawn scrutiny from Republican Sen. Bob Corker, whom Blackburn and Bredesen hope to replace. Corker called on Washington to stop using immigration as a “political football every time we have an election” and solve the problem legislatively.
“Let’s face it. We all know what’s happening,” Corker told reporters this week. “It’s all about revving up the base, using fear to stimulate people coming out at the polls.”
Bredesen, meanwhile, used his final TV spot to hammer home his message of bipartisanship and independent thinking. Blackburn and the GOP have looked to undermine that message by tying him to national Democrats. Bredesen, meanwhile, has tried to keep his distance from his party by pledging not to support Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and saying he would have supported Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation.
“If you like Washington the way it is — partisan shouting, finger-pointing, special interests — I’m not your guy,” Bredesen says in the ad.