Story updated at 3:48 p.m. on Nov. 4
One of the biggest political races in Tennessee history attracted presidential attention just days before elections as Donald Trump and Mike Pence attended a raucous rally in Chattanooga, marking a rare joint appearance by a sitting president and vice president.
The visit was part of an 11-city, eight-state “Make America Great Again” tour Trump is conducting over six days leading up to Tuesday’s election. The two rallied on behalf of Republican Senate candidate and current U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Sunday evening at McKenzie Arena on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus. Blackburn is in a tight Senate race with Democrat and former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen in an election that could prove crucial in determining which party controls Congress.
“In just two days, the people of Tennessee are going to elect Marsha Blackburn to the United States Senate to protect your jobs, defend your borders and continue making America great again,” Trump said.
The packed crowd in the 10,000-plus seat arena was energized, chanting and cheering through much of the approximately 45-minute speech. A large American flag was centered above the stage with banners on either side reading “PROMISES MADE. PROMISES KEPT,” and the red, white and blue-donned crowed yelled loudly for the Republican candidate.
Two recent polls show Blackburn and Bredesen in a dead heat, after several polls showed Blackburn leading, albeit slightly within the polls’ margin of error.
For many, the joint appearance by the commander in chief and his second in command was a clear sign how seriously the Republican party is taking the Tennessee Senate race. The rally left little question.
“I’m here for one reason and one reason only,” Pence said to start his speech. “Tennessee and America need Marsha Blackburn in the United States senate.”
The race is approaching $70 million in spending and is by far the most expensive race in Tennessee history, surpassing the 2006 Senate race between Bob Corker and Harold Ford Jr. That race saw approximately $45 million in expenditures.
Trump and Pence warned of what they see as dangers of a strong Democratic showing. Without a Republican win, Trump said, criminals will enter the country, shut down factories and steal jobs. He called Bredesen, the moderate Democrat, a “far-left liberal” who is a “handpicked” puppet of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, R-Calif.
Bredesen has campaigned as a centrist, saying he would do what’s best for Tennessee, rather than vote along party lines. He has taken stands that differ to many Democrats, saying he would support Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and talking about his support of the Second Amendment.
“I think Republicans are still concerned about this race,” said Kyle Kondik, political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “Blackburn has seemed to be leading and is, to me, favored in a state that has become very Republican, and yet the president would not be coming if the GOP thought this race was totally wrapped up.”
For Blackburn, the rally was a chance to further align herself with the Trump campaign and its policies.
“Tennesseans from all walks of life support the president’s work to cut taxes, stop illegal immigration, care for our veterans and nominate constitutionalist justices and judges who won’t legislate from the bench,” Blackburn said following the rally. “They expect Tennessee’s next senator to work alongside the president to pass his agenda.”
The latter was a major talking point for both Trump and Pence.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who was one of the lawmakers to open Sunday’s rally for Trump and Pence, said the president asked him to promise him one thing — “to make sure Blackburn is the next senator from the great state of Tennessee.”
The president and vice president also used the rally to further a strategy unveiled at an event last month: make the elections about Kavanaugh and the caravan.
The contentious confirmation of Kavanaugh and fear about a dwindling migrant caravan thousands of miles from the United States border have garnered attention nationwide.
“That’s an invasion, I don’t care what they say,” Trump said about the caravan. Regarding Kavanaugh, he added the allegations against him were “rigged, rigged; it was a total lie.”
Miles Daniel, who drove to the rally from Atlanta, said immigration was one of the biggest issues he was concerned about. Daniel was one of the first attendees to crowd the stage, hoping to get as close as possible to the president.
“If it wasn’t for Trump to stand up and protect America from these immigrants, it would be a problem,” Daniel said. He added however that he thought the caravan was a staged event.
“I think it’s a false flag. It’s an attempt to push the immigration issue and distract from the midterms, he said.”
Christian Polder, 21, who also drove in from out of state — Lee County, Virginia — listed the president’s handling of immigration as one of the promises he thought he had kept.
“He’s building the wall,” Polder said. “He cares about what the American people want done.”
Many of the supporters who lined up for hours ahead of the rally, came from out of state, but many were also Chattanoogans.
Though they chanted Blackburn’s name when she took the stage at the president’s urging, it was obvious most of them were there for Trump himself. And he did not disappoint his supporters.
With each mention of the blooming economy, the crowd cheered. With each mention of Schumer or Trump’s former opponent Hillary Clinton, the crowd booed. When addressing the caravan and the criminals and smugglers that make it up, they screamed and chanted, “Build that wall, build that wall.”
And when Fleischmann told them about “Trump, the man” and how “hard he works, and [that] he believes in the people of this nation,” they were enraptured.
Ahead of Trump’s visit, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini and the members of the Tennessee Democratic Party traveled to Chattanooga on Sunday to encourage residents to vote for Democratic candidates Tuesday.
“The best way to protest Donald Trump’s visit is to use every available minute talking to voters,” said spokeswoman Amanda Yanchury in a statement. “While Republicans sit through a rally where the president will choose to use fear to attempt to divide us, we will be knocking on doors and making phone calls — meeting people where they are — making our case for why voters should choose Democrats on Nov. 6.”
Staff writer Meghan Mangrum contributed to this story.
Contact staff writer Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.