FAIRFIELD GLADE, Tenn. — Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the conservative lawmaker who boasts of packing a pistol in her purse and of her passion for President Trump, had just left a pancake breakfast Saturday when a woman moved close.
“How as a woman can you support Donald Trump?” asked Marcia Storrison, a Democratic retiree in this heavily Republican area of hilly green golf courses. “His lies! I believe in facts. . . . I don’t understand how a woman can be supportive of what is going on.”
“Trump is working very hard for us,” replied the Republican congresswoman, touting his record on jobs and the economy.
But Storrison wasn’t satisfied. Trump has taken women’s rights “back to the 1950s,” she told Blackburn.
In a year when a surging number of female candidates on the left are tapping into support from women such as Storrison, Blackburn — who is facing centrist Democrat and former governor Phil Bredesen in a close Senate race — is taking the opposite tack by embracing the polarizing president.
Blackburn, one of Trump’s most vocal congressional surrogates, shares his hard-line views on immigration and often adopts a similarly pugilistic tone, calling herself “politically incorrect and proud of it.”
Her alliance with Trump will be center stage Tuesday, when the president is scheduled to appear with her at a rally in Nashville and then headline a fundraiser for her Senate campaign.
Aligning herself with Trump would seem to be a political win in Tennessee, which he easily won in 2016.
But Blackburn’s stance puts her at a distance from many of the women she will need to win over: While 59 percent of male Tennessee voters approve of Trump, only 48 percent of female voters do, according to a Vanderbilt University poll earlier this month.
That could be a key factor in what is emerging as a tight race to replace the retiring GOP incumbent, Sen. Bob Corker — a campaign cited by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as one that could determine control of the Senate.
Bredesen is ahead in early polls, and many analysts predict the success of Blackburn, the presumptive GOP nominee, could turn on her ability to win over female voters. The Vanderbilt poll showed that 46 percent of women viewed Blackburn favorably, compared with the 72 percent of women who approved of Bredesen.
“They will be one of, if not the, determinant in the race,” said Joshua Clinton, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt. “Gender is going to be a huge component.”
That is a complicated prospect for Blackburn, who asked to be called “congressman” instead of “congresswoman” when she arrived on Capitol Hill and has steered clear of gender in her bid this year — even though she would make history as the state’s first female senator.
When asked in an interview how significant that milestone would be, Blackburn demurred.
“I don’t campaign on the gender issue,” she responded, adding that she is the most qualified person running.
Some of Blackburn’s allies have pointed to Corker’s tepid support for her — while he has praised Bredesen and called him a friend — as a sign of a “good-old-boys network,” as one put it. Others dispute that, noting that Corker, a moderate, is far more aligned politically with Bredesen than Blackburn.
Blackburn, for her part, declined to endorse the idea that she faced sexism in her bid. “There will always be people who will say it is there,” she said. “. . . I am not.”
Instead of engaging on gender issues, Blackburn, 65, is emphasizing her conservative credentials.
“The left calls me a wing nut or a knuckle-dragging conservative, and you know what? I say, bring it on,” she says in a campaign kickoff ad, describing herself as “a hard-core, card-carrying conservative.”
The eight-term House member has gained national visibility as a frequent commentator on Fox News. And she has the backing of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, part of the Koch political network, which began running ads supporting her this weekend.
On Saturday, Blackburn had many fans as she circulated through the pancake breakfast at a community center in Fairfield Glade, in a room filled with older, white people — many wearing red-white-and-blue shirts for Memorial Day.
She moved from table to table, introducing herself and cheerfully saying, “We keep the taxes low and the legislation light!”
As she handed out her business cards and shook hands, one man asked her, “What will you do for me if you’re elected?”
“I will give you good, solid conservative representation,” Blackburn replied instantly, without elaboration.
“She is so beautiful,” said more than one retiree.
“Go get ’em, Marsha!” another woman shouted.
Jan Elwood, who was working a table for the Fairfield Glade Ladies Club, said one key reason she supports Blackburn is that she is against abortion.
It remains to be seen whether the blue wave that Democrats are hoping will lift their candidates in the midterms — expected to be powered by women — will wash through Tennessee. But liberals in the state said they are seeing rising political engagement and a resolve to defeat Blackburn, in part because of her record on reproductive rights.
“Her track record is abysmal,” said Sarah McCall, a director at Women for Tennessee’s Future, which is endorsing progressive female candidates.
Still, Blackburn’s race may well be decided by the strength of her support among Republicans and independents.
That’s where it could come down to women such as Colleen Conway-Welch, an influential Republican in Tennessee. She recently held a fundraiser for Bredesen, who was a close friend of her husband’s.
“Honestly, I think we need more people who fall in the center,” said Conway-Welch, who said Bredesen did a good job as governor and Nashville mayor and believes in doing the “right thing, not the party thing.”
Conway-Welch said she very much wants her Republican Party to keep control of the Senate.
But with five months to go before the midterms, she said, she had not yet made up her mind about whom to vote for.