US Senate rivals in Tennessee clash in 1st debate

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Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn

LEBANON, Tenn. — Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen quickly promised not to vote for Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as his Republican opponent U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn repeatedly sought to tie the former Tennessee governor to national Democrats in their first debate for U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Blackburn reiterated multiple times that Bredesen’s campaign “is bought and paid for” by Schumer, doubling down later with reporters that Schumer recruited Bredesen to run for the open Senate seat and pointing out that he’s previously donated to and at times has praised Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other leading Democrats. Meanwhile, Bredesen responded he would remain independent should he be elected in the upcoming Nov. 6 election, saying that he wouldn’t go to Washington to be a “political lackey.”

Tuesday’s hour-long event at Cumberland University was the first of two debates scheduled between the two candidates. The outcome of the red-state race could be critical, with a 51-49 Republican majority in the balance.

Though Bredesen pledged to oppose Schumer to lead the Senate, he did not say whether he had a preferred choice.

“I think a lot of the problem in Washington is with the leadership we have there now,” Bredesen said. “Whether it be (House Speaker Paul) Ryan or (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi or (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell, or Schumer, they’re not doing the job. We need to get new leadership. And I can 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.”

Blackburn brushed off Bredesen’s pledge on Schumer.

“(Bredesen) could have run as a Republican or an independent. Probably didn’t want to do that. He is running as a Democrat,” Blackburn said. “So, he will be with Chuck Schumer if he were to go to Washington.”

Blackburn also said that she would support Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination if she were in the Senate, though she said the woman accusing him of sexual assault in high school, Christine Blasey Ford, should be heard. Bredesen, who has also called for Ford’s testimony and criticized both parties for making a “circus” out of the Senate proceedings, has not yet weighed in with a yes-or-no on Kavanaugh’s nomination, though he has promised one.

Another accuser has since come forward alleging sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.

“I would vote to confirm him. He is an eminently qualified jurist,” Blackburn said. “He has served well on the federal court. And what we see taking place right now is a PR stunt by the Democrats. It is character assassination. This is something that is dirty politics at its worst.”

Blackburn sought to undermine Bredesen’s claims of independence on topics from health care to gun rights, where she pointed to her National Rifle Association endorsement and his latest ‘D’ rating by the NRA after he was rated ‘A’ as governor. She said gun control won’t make communities safer, specifically mentioning her support for incorporating red flags on mental health into the background check system and “hardening schools.”

Bredesen said “reasonable rules” should be in place on guns, mentioning universal background checks, funding the background check system properly, and incorporating a judicial process to keep guns away from people who are “clearly not mentally equipped” to have one.

On the opioid epidemic, Bredesen called Blackburn “one of the significant enablers” of the problem, pointing to her support of a 2016 law criticized for weakening federal authority to curb opioid distribution and her donations from pharmaceutical interests. Blackburn noted that the law passed Congress unanimously.

The two candidates briefly agreed when they said they opposed Trump’s move to increase trade tariffs on certain goods, with both claiming that the decision hurt Tennessee farmers and businesses. They also came out against calling members of the press “enemies of the people.”

However, Blackburn — who has been quick to point out her allegiance to Trump since she first began running for the seat — said she understood where Trump was coming from and said China had been launching a trade war against the U.S. for decades.

Blackburn also noted she opposed Trump’s spending measures, while Bredesen said he wished Trump would stop “cozying” up to countries like Russia and instead not damage relationships with countries that have long been allies with the U.S.

The second debate has been confirmed for Oct. 10 at the University of Tennessee’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in Knoxville.

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