Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen is set to officially enter the race for U.S. Senate, setting up a blockbuster election for the seat incumbent Sen. Bob Corker is set to vacate.
Three sources confirmed the Democrat’s candidacy, as first reported by the Nashville Post, on Wednesday.
Bredesen is expected to formally announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination Thursday morning.
The former governor — a political moderate and fiscal conservative who recently turned 74 — was the last Democrat to win a statewide election in Tennessee. He won all 95 counties in 2006 en route to his re-election as governor.
Although Tennessee’s political landscape has drastically shifted since then — Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats, seven of nine Congressional seats, the governor’s mansion and super majorities in both state legislative chambers — Bredesen’s candidacy is widely seen as a game-changer, perhaps turning Tennessee into a battleground.
Still, Bredesen hasn’t campaigned in the state in 11 years and the Democratic brand has eroded since then, in rural parts of the state in particular.
In October, political analyst Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report said Tennessee’s Senate race would become a tossup if Bredesen runs and that the seat would likely remain Republican if he did not.
It is unclear what impact the former governor’s candidacy will have on Democrat James Mackler, an Iraq War veteran and Nashville attorney who is also seeking the nomination.
“The best pathway to win Tennessee is having a clear contrast between an Iraq war combat veteran that volunteers to serve his country against a career politician who only serves special interests, and with the help of Tennesseans across this state, we’re going to win,” Mackler said.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has also expressed interest in the Democratic nomination.
On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher and Dr. Rolando Toyos are seeking the nomination.
Bredesen has significant personal finances that could bolster his effort to turn a seat long held by Republicans. He also has high strong approval ratings across the state. A recent Middle Tennessee University poll found 34 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Bredesen, second only to Blackburn’s 37 percent.
Republican commentator Bill Kristol, a critic of President Donald Trump, tweeted earlier this year that he believes Democrats would have a “decent shot at a pickup” if Bredesen were to run against Blackburn or Fincher.
In recent weeks, other Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam have said Bredesen could pose a serious threat.
Jim Sasser, who served from 1977 to 1995, was the last Democrat to hold a Senate seat in Tennessee.
As the news of Bredesen candidacy was developing, a spokesman for the National Republican Senate Committee and Blackburn campaign launched a proactive attack.
Bredesen, a former health care executive, served as Nashville mayor from 1991 to 1999.
After defeating U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary in the 2002 governor’s race, Bredesen was re-elected in 2006 in a landslide.
Since leaving the governor’s office in 2011, Bredesen has served as chairman of Silicon Ranch, a solar energy plant developer that he started with two of his former cabinet members, former Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber and former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Revenue Reagan Farr.
Corker announced on Sept. 26 that he would not seek a third term. Bredesen initially denied interest in the race. But days later, he told the Associated Press, “Since then, a number of people for whom I have great respect have encouraged me to reconsider and I am doing so.”
An online effort to encourage Bredesen to run was launched in October and the state’s top Democratic donor, Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, urged Bredesen to reconsider.
In recent weeks, Bredesen has been courted by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democratic senators.
Bredesen’s entry increases Democratic chances of regaining the majority in the Senate, where Republicans control 52 of the 100 seats.
Democrats are hopeful they can flip seats in Arizona and Nevada, but are in search of a key third race needed to take back the upper chamber. If Democrat Doug Jones can’t defeat Republican Roy Moore in next week’s special election for an Alabama Senate seat, then Tennessee vaults to the top of 2018 Democratic priorities.