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What just happened in Tennessee’s Democratic Senate primary?

Upset winner Marquita Bradshaw raised less than $25,000

Marquita Bradshaw
Environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw was the surprise winner in Thursday’s Democratic primary for Senate. (Screenshot/Facebook/Marquita Bradshaw for U.S. Senate)

While Tennessee voters were watching the hotly contested and sometimes ugly Republican Senate primary, a major upset was taking place on the Democratic ticket.

Army veteran James Mackler, the presumed front-runner who raised over $2.1 million and was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, finished third in a five-way field with 24 percent behind lawyer Robin Kimbrough at 27 percent and winner Marquita Bradshaw, who got 36 percent after raising a fraction of his total.

“With less than $25,000, we beat a million-dollar budget because people lent their resources and worked their networks,” Bradshaw said Thursday night in an impromptu press conference outside her home. “Grassroot organizing along with the proper budget is going to flip this U.S. Senate seat and make history.”

Bradshaw is an environmental activist and organizer who graduated from the University of Memphis. The Memphis native ran an almost entirely volunteer campaign, which focused on environmental equity issues and health care and a justice overhaul.

She is the first Black woman to be nominated for statewide office by either major political party in Tennessee.

When Bradshaw entered the race, the campaign was told it “didn’t have a place here,” she said, but she took an activist’s approach.

“We called everybody we knew, they called everybody they knew. It’s organizing, building a network of people working together,” she said.

Mackler’s primary loss is the first for a DSCC-backed candidate since 2010, when Cal Cunningham lost a Democratic Senate primary in North Carolina. Cunningham was once again endorsed by the DSCC when he launched his 2020 Senate run, and he won the primary to take on GOP Sen. Thom Tillis earlier this year.

The DSCC’s endorsed candidates have been overwhelmingly successful in their primaries so far this election cycle. Until Mackler’s defeat, the party had a perfect primary streak, with 11 of the 15 candidates the committee endorsed before their primaries winning nominations. But Democrats appeared less invested in Mackler’s fate than their preferred candidates in more competitive states.

In contested primaries in Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina and Texas, Democratic outside groups spent millions to help DSCC-backed candidates over the finish line. But that wasn’t the case in Tennessee, which is not a top target for Democrats in 2020 given the state’s Republican lean.

Away from the middle

Bill Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan endorsed by President Donald Trump, won the Republican nomination for the seat now held by retiring GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the general election Solid Republican.

Hagerty and top opponent Manny Sethi battled over who was the most conservative, while Democrats were arguing over who was more progressive, said Richard L. Pacelle Jr., head of the political science department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“It’s shocking,” Pacelle said of Bradshaw’s win. “I’m sure that the Mackler people are thinking, ‘What did we do wrong? We had this.’”

Mackler’s campaign, which had more than $615,000 on hand after spending $1.5 million through July 17, did not respond to a request for comment.

Tennessee has an open primary system, and the conventional wisdom that Republicans were most likely to hold the seat could have been a factor in the primary, Pacelle said. In Knoxville, he said, some Democrats don’t even bother voting in their party’s primary, preferring instead to vote in the Republican primary “because they see it as more consequential.”

For those who decided to vote in the typically lower-turnout Democratic primary, they saw someone who was running on a “very progressive plank and was an African American, and I think those two things made some difference.”

Bradshaw may have to do some damage control quickly, however.

The Federal Election Commission requires any candidate that has raised over $5,000 to file regularly scheduled reports. Bradshaw’s report for the three months ending June 30 and the 12-day pre-primary report, both due in July, are missing.

Her first quarter report, covering January through March, showed she raised a total of $8,421 and spent $5,778.

She could be subject to the FEC’s administrative fine program for missing the filings, but without a quorum on the commission’s board, it currently has no way to enforce a fine or administrative action.

Bradshaw also does not appear to have filed a personal financial disclosure statement required by Senate ethics rules.

‘People were sick’

Born near a superfund site at the Memphis Defense Depot, Bradshaw said in an interview with Essence that she was driven to environmental activism after her great-grandmother died of cancer in the early 1990s.

“A lot of people were sick too. And still are sick. That is what got me involved beyond voting,” she told the magazine. “And the point where it really got me activated is when we became aware that it was having an effect on children, 13- and 14-year-olds with ovarian and uterine cancer, 17-, 18-year-olds with prostate and testicular cancer.”

Bradshaw’s win was helped by a strong showing in the state’s five most populous counties. In her home county of Shelby, she got 34,507 votes to Mackler’s 12,218. Mackler, who calls Chattanooga his childhood hometown, ran behind Bradshaw in that city’s Hamilton County, 7,712 votes to 5,356.

Michael Harris, the Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, said Bradshaw’s existing network in Memphis helped her, while Mackler was never able to establish a presence in the county, which is 54 percent Black, according to census data.

He said she was able to bring her message to the state too, traveling to many parts before the coronavirus pandemic stopped her from being able to knock on doors. But even then, she was still calling voters and talking to them one on one.

“I think her on-the-ground game seemed to just work better,” he said.

He also attributed some of her success to a moment in America when people are seeking new leadership from more diverse voices.

“This is the time of the strong woman in America, and that includes, of course, the strong Black woman,” he said. “And I think that’s what Marquita Bradshaw is.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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