That U.S. Senate race in Bible Belt Tennessee: What matters more, Trump or cultural issues?

Let’s see. What was going on in America before public discourse went totally bonkers, once again?

Oh, right. The mid-term elections are coming up, with Democrats hoping to win enough seats in the U.S. Senate to put Mike Pence in the White House.

To the shock of just about everyone here in the three cultures of Tennessee (think Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville), this Bible Belt state has a real, live U.S. Senate race on its hands in 2018. This is what happens when Democrats are willing to nominate an old-guard politico who has a track record as an economic centrist, back in the days before religious, moral and cultural issues took complete control of American politics.

On top of that, megastar Taylor Swift has even jumped into the fight, with a blunt endorsement of an old, white guy, saying he is the best way to defend Tennesseans from a female candidate’s conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality.

In other words, it’s absolutely impossible to talk about the Tennessee U.S. Senate race without talking about religion and culture.

So, how did The Washington Post political desk do in its recent feature — “In deep-red Tennessee, Republicans are anxious about the U.S. Senate race“ — on this topic? Here is the overture, with the lede set right here in my back yard:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeanie Brakebill voted for President Trump. But when a conservative canvasser showed up at the 63-year-old’s door here recently, she confided that she had grown tired of Trump’s confrontational brand of politics and was leaning toward voting Democratic in the upcoming midterm election.

“I would vote for Bredesen, to help out Tennessee — even if it means giving Democrats the majority in the Senate,” said Brakebill, referring to Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen.

The sentiments expressed by Brakebill and voters like her have raised fresh worries for Republicans in this deep red state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 but where voters remain divided just weeks before a midterm election that could determine which party controls the Senate.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) is locked in a tight race against Bredesen, a popular former governor running on a moderate platform and a deep well of goodwill from his eight years in office.

Now, as any seasoned news consumer knows, the word “moderate” basically means “someone whose moral, religious and cultural views don’t freak out editors in our newsroom.”

As a lifelong populist, somewhat Blue Dog Democrat (until 2016, when I was #NeverHillary #NeverTrump), I think that it’s absolutely accurate to refer to Bredesen as a “moderate” or “centrist” — in the context of today’s Democratic Party. The question, of course, is how his views fit into politics in Tennessee, at this moment in time.

The bottom line: The pros on the political desk at The Washington Post, as usual, have zero interest in the role that religious, moral and cultural issues play in this kind of context out in flyover country. Once again, life is all about Trump, Trump, Trump and Trump.

This was yet another important story where the political-beat editors needed to ask the religion-desk team for help.

Where do the two Tennessee candidates stand on abortion and, in particular, the legal status of abortions performed after viability? Where are they on the legal rights of homeschooling parents? How about the complicated First Amendment issues at the heart of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case? How about tensions between parental rights and the claims of trans-rights activists?

There’s no question that Blackburn is on the right side of the GOP, while Bredesen is a centrist among Democrats. And, yes, The Donald is an issue here.

However, there is a reason that the Democratic candidate is doing everything he can not to answer questions about moral, cultural and religious issues.

Now, read between the lines of this passage in the otherwise faith-free Post feature:

The Supreme Court battle has helped move the needle toward Blackburn among Republican-leaning and independent voters who are tired of partisan bickering, said Tori Venable, the Tennessee state director for Americans for Prosperity, whose activists are working across the state to persuade voters. The group is not letting up, as the race remains competitive, she said.

Blackburn is touting her conservative bona fides and is attacking Bredesen’s past support for Hillary Clinton and other national Democrats. Her hardcore brand of conservatism — she says in her announcement video that she carries a gun in her purse — is fueling the Republican base, which believes Blackburn has fought for their values during her 16 years in the House.

“I get up every day and I go fight for five things: Faith, family, freedom, hope and opportunity,” Blackburn said in a debate with Bredesen last week. “Tonight, what you saw was one who’s going to be a fighter for those things and individual freedoms, and one that is going to support bigger government and big-government solutions.”

You just have to love the gun reference (let me stress, once again, that I lean left on gun-control issues). Which newsy topic is the Post team more comfortable probing, when it comes to describing these candidates, the Second Amendment or the First Amendment?

If you look at media coverage of this Senate race, it’s really hard to find concrete information on what Bredesen actually believes, when it comes to “Bible Belt” issues. I did find this one fleeting reference in an Associated Press report:

Among … Democrats, Bredesen has been the most overt in distancing himself from his own party. He pans Democratic leaders for being “elitist” and bemoans efforts to win elections through “demographic partitioning.” While he’s consistently favored allowing access to abortion during his political career, he speaks openly about how that is not a defining issue for him.

“I believe that if this race is a race between me and Congresswoman Blackburn, I win,” Bredesen said. “If it’s a race between Democrats and Republicans, I lose.”

So, keep you eye on Taylor Swift?

Right now, it appears that she knows more about the hot buttons in Tennessee politics than lots of the reporters who are covering the race. Maybe, when it comes to the Sexual Revolution, there are issues she is not willing to shake off.

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