In April 2009, Congress—then dominated by Democrats—convened a hearing about climate change. Naturally, Al Gore testified.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce invited the former vice president—now a leading climate change advocate—to stump for “cap-and-trade” legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the Obama administration’s earliest policy priorities. The minority Republicans on the committee were skeptical. They grudgingly vocalized their doubts about the underlying climate science, and they disputed the wisdom of improving the environment through legislation, regulations, and taxes. Newt Gingrich also testified before the committee to argue against the “cap-and-trade” legislation. “It threatens the entire American economy,” Gingrich argued.
During Gore’s testimony, the GOP congresswoman Marsha Blackburn disputed the motives for climate change science. Blackburn represents Gore’s home state, Tennessee, and here she sat on the same committee he sat on three decades earlier. Blackburn grilled the former vice president, asking whether his environmental activism was really just venture capitalism in disguise. It was a goofy, conspiratorial line of questioning that may as well as have come from Tucker Carlson. “Congresswoman,” Gore growled, “if you believe that the reason I’ve been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me.” Blackburn stammered and demurred, her insinuations lingering in the House’s foul air. Ultimately, the centerpiece legislation—the American Clean Energy and Security Act—died in the Senate. The House narrowly passed the legislation, but the Tea Party killed its momentum. In the movement’s formative throes, the Tea Party mobilized aggressively against cap-and-trade and other environmentalist legislation.
The last Democrat whom Tennessee elected to the Senate was Al Gore. In the 26 years since Gore departed Congress for the White House, the Democratic Party has ceded most of the South, including Tennessee, to unshakeable GOP control. Al Gore had warned everyone about climate change. Al Gore had warned everyone about Marsha Blackburn.
In 2018, Blackburn is campaigning for a promotion—from the House to the Senate. She’s slightly favored to win her race against the Democratic challenger, Phil Bredesen, the state’s former governor and also the former mayor of Nashville. The Tennessee Senate race was a relatively low-key concern until this past Sunday, when Taylor Swift shattered her political neutrality to endorse Bredesen with a lengthy Instagram caption. More urgently, Swift wrote a ferocious assessment of Blackburn’s voting record on legislation related to domestic violence, sexual intimidation, gender parity, and LGBTQ rights. “Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me,” Swift wrote about the Tennessee congresswoman. In a rare turn to caution, Blackburn declined to disparage Swift in return. Trump has weighed in on the Tennessee Senate race only to say that he enjoys Swift’s music “about 25 percent less” now that the singer has announced her support for Blackburn’s opponent. Trump and Blackburn have resisted the urge to answer Swift’s endorsement with a full-throated culture war.
But Blackburn is a culture warrior. She’s served in Congress for the past sixteen years, but she forged a national reputation for telegenic extremism during the Tea Party movement’s formative months. Blackburn stood alongside Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann in the reactionary backlash to Barack Obama’s election. Blackburn is the sole Tea Party leader who graduated successfully from Tea Party politics to modern Trumpism. In announcing her Senate campaign a year ago, Blackburn billed herself as a “hardcore” conservative, “politically incorrect, and proud of it”—a Fox News Republican to her core. She’s a novelty candidate who somehow seriously personifies the modern GOP. Accordingly, Blackburn is more popular than any sensible observer could hope. In the most recent New York Times poll, Blackburn leads Bredesen by 15 points. In a supposedly blue year, Blackburn is a defiantly red candidate fighting to retain GOP control of a Senate seat in the South.
Blackburn’s spiteful, defiant brand of conservative is the emergent theme in this election season’s final phase. In the tumultuous wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, GOP leaders say they’ve found renewed optimism, and aggression, among Republican voters heading into the midterm elections. Bredesen is a relatively conservative Democrat who has recently struggled to distance himself from liberal opposition to Brett Kavanaugh; Blackburn is a right-wing troll whose conservatism knows no pragmatic or conciliatory bounds. Still more informative, perhaps, is the perceived contrast between Blackburn and her potential predecessor, Bob Corker. “He’s been somebody who is not partisan who gets things done,” one GOP donor told the Washington Examiner in July. “Marsha Blackburn just isn’t that. She does not have a record of doing anything other than being a partisan ideologue.” During the Tea Party years, the GOP struggled to discourage the nomination of right-wing spoiler candidates in competitive races. But under Trump, Marsha Blackburn is a model Republican challenger.
Initially, pundits and forecasters saw the 2018 midterm elections as a pending, inevitable humiliation for Trumpism; an across-the-board defeat heralded by scattered GOP losses along the way; a crucial milestone in the Democratic Party’s lofty efforts to recapture Congress and maybe even impeach Trump. It was to be a correction. But now, suddenly, the political climate seems far less certain to favor either party for sure. Neither Taylor Swift nor Al Gore can save Bredesen from Marsha Blackburn now.