Taylor Swift at the 2018 American Music Awards. CreditCredit Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Tennessee progressives were unhappy with their options in a close Senate race. A 28-year-old pop star explained the stakes.
NASHVILLE — Last Sunday night, Taylor Swift did something she had never done in her stratospheric career as a pop star: She endorsed a political candidate in Tennessee, her adopted home state.
She endorsed two candidates, actually, both Democrats: Representative Jim Cooper, who is running for re-election to Congress, and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is running to fill the Senate seat that the Republican Bob Corker is voluntarily, sort of, vacating.
Swift did more than simply endorse the Democrats. In an Instagram post to her 112 million followers, she also slammed Marsha Blackburn, the Republican House member running against Mr. Bredesen: “Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me,” Ms. Swift wrote. “She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values.”
There’s a good reason for any female artist, especially one who got her start on country radio, to think twice about wading into politics. To understand how much courage it took for Taylor Swift to post such a statement, you need to remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks back in 2003. At the time they were one of the most popular acts in country-music history and the top-selling female group of all time. Then, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the lead singer, Natalie Maines, told a London audience that the group opposed the coming invasion: “We do not want this war, this violence,” she said, “and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
To their audience, the band members became public enemies overnight. Radio stations were bombarded with calls from irate listeners. The group’s tour sponsor dropped them. Fans boycotted them. They got death threats. Ever since, country-music publicists have made it clear to their artists, especially their female artists: Skip the politics.
The Dixie Chicks never recovered. Here in 2018, something very different is happening to Taylor Swift: People, it seems, are following her lead. By noon on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after she posted her exhortation on Instagram, more than 166,000 people across the country had registered to vote. And while there is no hard evidence, no way to measure how much Swift’s post had to do with the bump, some details were telling: Roughly 42 percent of the newly registered are between the ages of 18 and 24, right in Taylor Swift’s wheelhouse. “We have never seen a 24- or 36- or 48-hour period like this,” a spokeswoman for Vote.org told The Times.
Among the newly registered, more than 6,200 live in Tennessee, and Mr. Bredesen will need every one of them to show up at the polls on Nov. 6. Last year, when Senator Corker announced that he would not seek re-election, he cited his belief in a “citizen legislator model” that eschews career politicians. His real reason: This is a blood-red state, and his clashes with President Trump had left Mr. Corker, a moderate Republican, bleeding. Unwilling to face a bruising primary challenge from a Tea Party candidate, he opened the door for a Tea Party candidate to waltz right in.
Enter Marsha Blackburn: “I’m a hard-core, card-carrying Tennessee conservative,” she said in an ad announcing her decision to run. “I’m politically incorrect and proud of it.” The ad was so far to the right of mainstream that Twitter blocked it for inflammatory content.
Progressives were hoping Mr. Corker’s announcement would be their chance to energize a listless state Democratic Party. True, Hillary Clinton won only three counties in Tennessee, but the state’s two largest cities, Memphis and Nashville, consistently vote for Democrats. And given that Tennessee’s urban population continues to grow even as its rural population shrinks, it stands to reason that a truly progressive candidate — someone charismatic and unapologetically liberal — could bring out young voters and people of color and thus change the whole nature of politics here.
Instead, state Democrats got behind Phil Bredesen, a 74-year-old business-friendly moderate who previously served two terms as both mayor of Nashville and governor of Tennessee. It was a savvy move in many ways. Mr. Bredesen won all 95 Tennessee counties when he ran for re-election in 2006, his last campaign, and he still enjoys high name recognition and approval ratings here. In May, Vanderbilt University polled a representative sampling of Tennesseans, rating Mr. Bredesen’s overall favorability at 67 percent.
It’s hard to imagine a candidate better poised to attract disaffected Republicans. If you’re an old-school conservative and you’re alarmed by an erratic president with no functional institutional checks on his most outrageous ideas, the last person you want to send to the Senate on your behalf is a rabble-rousing Trump apologist with a gun in her purse.
For moderate Republican voters, a calm, affable fiscal conservative is an appealing alternative, especially one who has a history of standing up to his own party. (Mr. Bredesen responded to a budget crisis inherited from his predecessor by cutting 300,000 people from the state’s Medicaid rolls. Liberals responded by staging a 77-day, round-the-clock sit-in at the governor’s office, and I was cheering them on every single day.)
Mr. Bredesen is an option who appeals to disaffected Republicans and moderate liberals alike. He supports renewing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children. He has criticized the Affordable Care Act but doesn’t support abolishing it. He wants to expand background checks for gun purchases and increase the minimum wage. He supports Planned Parenthood, as well as marriage equality and net neutrality, and he’s a champion for teachers.
But for Tennessee progressives, Mr. Bredesen represents a tragic lost opportunity. He avoids discussing his positions on hot-button social issues, emphasizing instead his long history of cooperating with state Republicans on bipartisan projects. And he seems to have no stomach for partisan battles.
During the controversy over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Mr. Bredesen called Christine Blasey Ford “a heroine” and said he was “disgusted by the treatment she received at the hands of the Senate.” But he also believes the president of the United States has wide latitude in appointing qualified federal judges. When he announced that he supported Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination, Tennessee liberals started muttering about sitting out the election. Nationally, at least two progressive organizations — MoveOn.org and Priorities USA Action, the largest Democratic Party super PAC — announced that they no longer support Mr. Bredesen.
Senate Majority PAC and Majority Forward, two other national political action committees funding liberal candidates for the Senate, have continued their support. But the biggest boost may have come from a 28-year-old pop star who pointed out what would seem to be obvious: that our choice is not between a progressive and a conservative. Our choice is between a mild-mannered, business-friendly centrist and a Tea Party Republican who has voted with the president 91 percent of the time, who favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade, who opposes marriage equality and who is in thrall to the Koch brothers and the National Rifle Association. The list of Marsha Blackburn’s assaults on liberal values goes on and on and on.
FiveThirtyEight.com puts Mr. Bredesen’s chances of beating Ms. Blackburn at roughly 20 percent, but with any luck Taylor Swift has shifted the race considerably. As she pointed out in her Instagram post, “We may never find a candidate or party with whom we agree 100 percent on every issue, but we have to vote anyway.” In Tennessee, the choice is clear.