Bradshaw upsets political world with U.S. Senate primary win

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 10, 2020 2:51 PM CT | Published: August 09, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Memphian Marquita Bradshaw turned political pundits on their ear Thursday, Aug. 6, vaulting from a little-known political neophyte to the state’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. And she did it spending only a fraction of the money of the man conventional wisdom chose.

Bradshaw, an environmental activist who grew up in the shadow of the Defense Depot in Memphis, reported spending only $5,778 in the primary race. That compares to Nashville attorney James Mackler, the establishment pick who raised $2.1 million and spent $1.5 million. Bradshaw didn’t file financial information for the latest reporting periods.

Bradshaw won using years of experience as a union and neighborhood organizer, telling her story and finding out people’s wants and needs for action in Washington, D.C.

Bradshaw brings environmental perspective to U.S. Senate race

It’s a method that caught fire as voters embraced an African American woman in a world where Black lives are starting to matter.

Bradshaw doesn’t use the “traditional playbook” written by “white men” or the political establishment. Instead, she incorporated her years of knowledge in environmental justice into the “cultural justice movement” to secure the primary and says she will do the same thing to win the U.S. Senate seat.

One of the 11 founders of Youth Terminating Pollution, Bradshaw is a volunteer project director for Defense Depot Memphis, Tennessee – Concerned Citizens Committee and a board member of the Sierra Club.

“It’s not the regular way that white men organize with money,” Bradshaw, a single mother, said. “They think they can buy their way into a Senate seat. And right now people are disconnected. The way we win a U.S. Senate seat is that they (voters) become a part of the practice and they are fully vested in not just the candidate but the solution that we are creating together on the campaign trail by collecting those stories.”

The University of Memphis graduate campaigned largely on the need for greater access to health care and equity in the economy and education. She plans to continue with that platform.

“Before COVID, people had problems with health care too. But COVID just ripped the scab off of all the ills we have in our economy, our educational system,” she said.

Trying to figure it out

Rhodes College political science professor Michael Nelson was among those who thought Mackler would win with ease. After all, he was set to run for the Senate two years ago before former Gov. Phil Bredesen stepped in, and he had the money and the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

<strong>Marquita Bradshaw</strong>

Marquita Bradshaw

But 2020 is not politics as usual, and Bradshaw apparently isn’t the typical candidate.

“She’s sort of flown with the zeitgeist this year. This is the year in which at the Democratic Party grass roots, things like environmental justice and being an African American woman are all politically inspiring causes in a way that hasn’t been as true in the past,” said Nelson, a regular columnist for The Daily Memphian.

Bradshaw won 117,282 votes statewide, 35.5% in the unofficial count, including 34,507 in her home county of Shelby and 25,436 in Metro Nashville.

Robin Kimbrough came in second with 87,827 votes across the state, 26.6%, 28,443 in Metro Nashville, while Mackler fell to third, 78,507, 23.7%, losing to both Bradshaw and Kimbrough in his Metro Nashville home with 21,108 votes.

Nelson believes this is more than a case of Mackler running an “over-confident” campaign. And he wonders whether the Nashvillian, who focused quite a bit of attention on his military experience, could have done anything to close a 12-point gap.

“I think she won this, and it was kind of a case of the person and the moment coinciding,” Nelson said.

Nelson: Can the Democrats win November Senate elections in Tennessee and Mississippi?

Hagerty looms as favorite

Looking ahead to Nov. 3, Republican nominee Bill Hagerty, who trounced Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi after a nasty campaign, will carry the endorsement of President Donald Trump in a red state.

Nelson said the Tennessee Democratic Party has no choice but to put solid backing behind Bradshaw because she represents the direction the party is going -- an African American woman with a strong environmental background “energizing” young, grassroots Democrats.

The party didn’t mention Bradshaw by name Thursday night when it sent out a statement congratulating Democratic primary winners and setting the table for October and November.

But Democratic Party Chairman Mary Mancini followed up with a statement Friday saying “history was made” when Democratic voters chose Bradshaw to represent the party in the U.S. Senate race.

“Bradshaw is the first Black woman to be nominated for statewide office by either major political party in Tennessee, as well as the only Black woman nationwide to run for a U.S. Senate seat this election,” Mancini said.

“An environmentalist, mom and activist from Memphis, Bradshaw has spent her life advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable. She took her experience talking to and listening to people and transformed it into a primary winning campaign. We look forward to working with Bradshaw to win the Tennessee Senate seat in November.”

House Minority Leader Karen Camper congratulated Bradshaw on her victory as well.

“She emerged from a talented field of Democrats and I thank them all for their dedication to our party and our ideals,” said Camper, a Memphis Democrat. “Ms. Bradshaw and her team showed that while you can be outspent in a political race, you can never be outworked. Tenacity is our currency in the Democratic Party. As a fellow Memphian, I look forward to helping her in any way I can to amplify her message to the rest of our great state and to her winning in November.”

With the election three months away, the question is whether Bradshaw will be able to put a dent in Hagerty and Tennessee’s Republican establishment.

He has $2.6 million in cash on hand and will benefit from outside political action committees, which spent millions opposing Sethi and will likely do the same to Bradshaw if polls show she begins to threaten Hagerty’s ascension.

Bradshaw, though, has no plan to raise and spend big money to buy TV and radio ads and mailers. She calls those too “one-directional” to bring people into a campaign.

“What we need to do is continue to grow the movement that we’ve created over this campaign and amplify it all across the state within every county from the bluff to the mountaintops,” she said.

Making people feel like they’re part of a solution, Bradshaw said, will help her garner the votes to represent Tennessee in Washington, D.C.

Nelson, who admits he still isn’t quite sure how Bradshaw won, said it will be a tough task to knock off Hagerty but in an unconventional year, he’s not writing her off either.


Marquita Bradshaw Bill Hagerty James Mackler Michael Nelson
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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