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Front Page - Friday, June 8, 2018

View from the Hill: Blackburn’s scattershot hits surprise targets

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is doubling down against Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen in the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, hammering him as a liberal in the vein of Obama, Clinton, Schumer and Pelosi.

Notably, Blackburn clarifies an allegation she leveled against the former Tennessee governor recently when she claimed he signed a law giving driver licenses to illegal immigrants. In fact, former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist signed that law, and then Bredesen two years later signed a measure allowing illegal immigrants to obtain a driver certificate, not to be used for any other identification purposes.

The idea was to make sure people knew how to drive when they got behind the wheel. Bredesen’s administration later ended that practice because too many people from other states were coming here and using forged documents to get the certificates.

Either way, Blackburn is blasting away at the former governor.

“Immigration is an issue people care deeply about, and the point is that (Bredesen) was trying to find a way to let those that are in the country illegally have a legal state document. And whether it was one administration or another, that is something I have always opposed. These are individuals that are in this country and in our state illegally,” Blackburn said during a campaign stop at a Ducks Unlimited shrimp boil in Murfreesboro.

Democrats have been calling her words at an East Tennessee event the “Blackburn Boomerang” because they could come back to haunt Republicans such as gubernatorial candidate Congressman Diane Black and state Sen. Bill Ketron, who is leaving the Legislature to run for Rutherford County mayor.

Ketron, who sponsored the driver certificate bill in 2005, is likely to win anyway after rolling through the Republican primary. Black, who is in a rough-and-tumble gubernatorial primary, voted for both measures while in the Legislature.

Asked if she’s concerned her comments could hurt other Republicans, Blackburn explains, “I gotta tell you … having a legal document for someone in the country illegally is something Tennesseans do not support, and it is something I have stood against and fought against.

“I think it is so important that we welcome legal immigrants into our communities. But it is not right for those that are in the country illegally to get official government documents and get in the queue, get in line in front of people who are trying to legally come to the country. It’s just not right.

“It’s why Tennesseans want to build and secure that Southern border and end sanctuary city policies and end chain migration and end that visa lottery, the diversity lottery.”

President Donald Trump says a Southern wall at the Mexican border would cost about $12 billion, according to a Brookings Institute report, but a Department of Homeland Security internal report put the expense at $21.6 billion. The effort is complex, to say the least, requiring eminent domain to take people’s land along the border. Roughly 90 lawsuits remain alive in southern Texas because of the 2008 fence-building pursuit.

Still, Blackburn, a Franklin Republican who served in the Legislature and voted against the driver license bill for illegal immigrants, says such a wall is worth the expense when compared to the cost of illegal immigration in lives and people who’ve been hurt.

“There is a cost to all of it. We are a nation of laws and we should be abiding by the rule of law,” she adds.

The Center for Immigration, which favors lower immigration numbers, puts the estimated cost of one illegal immigrant at $74,722 during their lifetime, based on National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine analysis method, which calculates taxes paid minus costs.

The analysis doesn’t put a pencil to the amount of money Americans save on cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants, which is the main reason they’ve been invited to America for decades.

Bredesen, a two-term governor and two-term Nashville mayor, points out in a recent interview he has barely mentioned his opponent. A veteran of political races, he’s accustomed to Blackburn’s tactics.

“The time I’ve been involved in politics, there’s somebody that always does this kind of stuff, that just thinks something up and throws it against the wall and (they) don’t actually research what it is they’re talking about,” Bredesen says. “It was my predecessor that passed that law, and the one I passed and signed actually moved it in the other direction.

“So I think it was sort of amusing to see she probably ended up hurting people in her own party more than she did me with it.”

Polling disparity

A recent Vanderbilt poll buoyed the Bredesen campaign, showing him with an overall favorability score of 67 percent to 49 percent overall for Blackburn. He also tallied an 85 percent support rate among Democrats while Blackburn received 72 percent backing from Republicans.

In addition, Bredesen was more popular among independent voters with 69 percent to Blackburn’s 44 percent. And he has a 52 percent favorability rating among Republicans, compared to Blackburn’s 23 percent favorability with Democrats, according to the poll.

Bredesen calls the numbers a “pleasant surprise,” though he acknowledges he wasn’t “astonished” because he tries to avoid getting “too ideological.”

“When I was governor, I really took it seriously, the idea you’re governor of all the people of the state, whether or not they voted for you or whether or not they agree with you on any particular issue. I think that’s what helps me with independents and even some Republicans now. I’m just gonna keep doing what I’ve been doing before. Obviously, it’s worked,” he says.

Blackburn, the recipient of a recent Nashville visit from President Donald Trump to help raise campaign funds, downplays Bredesen’s popularity with mainstream Republicans and independents. She claims legislators “will tell you it’s the General Assembly that kept Bredesen as a governor pulled back to the middle.”

Yet, it was Bredesen who booted about 200,000 people off TennCare rolls because the program was costing more than the state could afford. Some liberal legislators are still unhappy about the move.

Trump’s visit wasn’t surprising, considering Blackburn spoke in his favor at the Republican Convention in 2016. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him return before the November election, either, because even though his visit could give her a bump in the polls, she and the president both acknowledge the difficult task at hand.

News reports show Trump referring to Bredesen as “Philbert” and other condescending names. Yet, he apparently said beating Bredesen would be difficult.

Blackburn confirms that, saying Trump was “very consistent” in his analysis of the race.

“He made the point more than once that we need every single vote, because this is going to be a tough race,” Blackburn notes. “You’ve got (U.S. Sen.) Chuck Schumer saying his path to the majority runs through Tennessee, and people are going to have a very clear difference between my opponent and me.

“If they want the Obama-Clinton-Schumer-Pelosi agenda, then that is what they’re going to see from my opponent. If they want lower taxes, conservative judges, if they want to make certain that we end sanctuary city policies, if they want less government interference, then I’m their candidate.”

Bredesen, however, has been clear from the start he’s not running against the president. If he thinks a Trump policy is good for Tennessee, he’ll support it. If not, he’ll oppose it and try to come up with something else.

“I have no intention of going to Washington and being somebody who’s just against everything he tries to do no matter what it is. I work for the people of Tennessee, not for the Democratic Party or anything else,” Bredesen said during a recent visit to the Kennedy Day Dinner in Murfreesboro.

He also disputes the idea the Senate majority depends on the outcome in Tennessee as he and Blackburn battle for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker. Incidentally, Corker has said he will not campaign against Bredesen, whom he considers a friend.

Tariff talk

One area where Bredesen and Blackburn don’t clash is trade tariffs, specifically those enacted by the Trump administration on steel and aluminum produced in Canada, Mexico and Europe, in addition to the import tax on Chinese products. The reaction from those countries is expected to be retaliatory tariffs, which experts say could drive up U.S. manufacturing costs, possibly forcing American companies to lay off workers or raise their own retail prices.

“I’m not one who’s a big fan of higher tariffs or higher taxes, either one,” Blackburn explains.

The congresswoman notes she is talking to the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to see what exemptions might be adopted. She also wants to make sure they don’t hurt manufacturers such as the LG Electronics plant in Clarksville or automakers Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan in Smyrna and General Motors in Spring Hill.

She points out a number of boats are manufactured in Tennessee, too, and no company in the nation makes the sheet aluminum needed for boats.

Thus, consumers and workers are on the line as Trump pushes one of his campaign promises.

“We’re concerned about that because we’ve been doing so well with growing jobs. … And not only the steel tariffs, we’re watching what may happen to the ag products, soy and pork. That is something that affects West Tennessee, so we’re watching that pretty closely,” Blackburn continues.

Even Jack Daniel’s, Tennessee’s iconic sipping whiskey, is worried about the impact of trade tariffs. And if Jack Daniel’s goes down the drain we’re going to be in a world of hurt.

Bredesen made this statement about the tariffs: “The increasing tensions between our country and our allies is troubling, especially for Tennesseans here at home who rely on a strong auto manufacturing and agricultural economy for support.

“Washington needs a timeout. As I’ve said before, broad tariffs are by their nature like taking a big ax to a problem that needs a scalpel – the blow may be aimed at a real issue but usually creates lots of other damage in the process.

“This is a perfect example of what happens when Washington takes some talking points that were dreamt up in a backroom somewhere removed from reality and tries to turn them into policy. These tariffs have the potential to become a real problem for workers in Tennessee and their families, who will likely be some of the first ones to feel the effects of these types of decisions.”

Tax cuts anew?

In campaigning across Tennessee, Blackburn says people are “fully aware” Bredesen would have voted against President Trump’s tax-cut package, which she supported.

“He agreed with (U.S. Rep. Nancy) Pelosi on them being crumbs. And that’s not the way most of us see those tax cuts. They’re working,” she notes.

Furthermore, Blackburn adds, people want “tax cuts 2.0” and she’s willing to back another round of business and individual breaks.

The estimated savings for a household with income of $75,000 is $2,078, though individual cuts are only temporary and could increase in 2025, a Business Insider magazine study shows. Corporate tax rates are being cut permanently.

As a result, most experts say the federal deficit is expected to increase by as much as $2 trillion during the next 10 years, leading some budget hawks to criticize the move. Proponents say the tax breaks will bolster the economy and stave off those deficit increases.

Bredesen contends the tax package Congress passed has too many loopholes, though he agrees with the idea of cutting the marginal tax rate. Congress needs to cut spending, he adds, and he points toward a $300 billion move to keep the federal government operating as more wasted money.

“I’ll be honest, it seems both parties have completely lost any notion that there’s a moral requirement to not just borrow money hand over fist all the time, and I think it’s gotta change,” he points out.

The analysis

As a long, scorching Tennessee summer starts in late June, this race is likely to heat up, with Blackburn slinging more barbs and Bredesen possibly launching a few of his own.

At some point, he’ll have to mention her name, if nothing else.

One question is whether Trump’s support will give Blackburn the votes she needs to bounce Bredesen come November. Can Blackburn afford to tie her candidacy completely to the president’s popularity in Tennessee?

One thing is certain about Trump: Things change from day to day, if not hour to hour or tweet to tweet.

Can Bredesen win with an even-keel approach, or will he need to start throwing some zingers? Even some in his own party wonder if he has the charisma to win, even if he didn’t need to crack jokes to spend 16 years as Nashville mayor and Tennessee governor.

The final question is: Who will hold up under Tennessee heat in August and September when the index hits 105?

No matter where Bredesen and Blackburn are campaigning, though, somewhere in Tennessee, an immigrant worker – illegal or otherwise – will be roofing a house or landscaping someone’s lawn under a blazing summer sun.

And you know what? The people paying them won’t send them home. You can bank on it.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.