It might seem like a waste of time for a Democrat to campaign here in the Tri-Cities. This region of northeast Tennessee is among the most consistently Republican areas in the country. Voters in this nearly all-white district have not sent a Democrat to Congress since 1878. All but one member of the state legislature north and east of Knoxville is a Republican. The local state senator in Johnson City, Rusty Crowe, was elected as a Democrat via write-in in 1990, but he quickly switched parties and is now one of the most senior Republicans in the state senate. In 2016, Donald Trump won 76 percent of the vote here.

So why is Phil Bredesen, the Democratic party’s 74-year-old nominee for the U.S. Senate, stumping in this GOP stronghold with less than a month to go before the election? Bredesen, speaking to supporters at a meet-and-greet at local party headquarters in Johnson City in mid-October, seemed surprised by the show of enthusiasm. “I thought there might be five to six people here working,” he said to a crowd of nearly 50. “Obviously, I’m overwhelmed with this.”

The former mayor of Nashville, Bredesen won his 2002 bid for governor by closing the margin with his Republican rival in East Tennessee and even winning a few counties here. In his 2006 reelection campaign—his last race before 2018—Bredesen won every county in the state, including nearly 62 percent in Washington County, home of Johnson City.

“The area I grew up in is up in western New York state, up in the Finger Lakes, and interestingly very much like northeast Tennessee,” he told the group. “The people are similar, the topography is similar, so it’s always been a part of the state I’ve felt especially at home in.” If any Democrat should feel comfortable here, it’s Bredesen. It’s also where he’ll have to mine votes if he has any chance of beating his Republican opponent in November, Marsha Blackburn.

These days, it’s difficult to win statewide in Tennessee as a Democrat. Bredesen was the last candidate to do it. When Bredesen’s term was over, three of Tennessee’s five Democratic House seats flipped to the GOP. Like Bredesen, the three House members were centrist Democrats, the likes of which have all but disappeared from the national party. Both of Tennessee’s Senate seats have been in Republican hands for more than two decades. Republican Bill Haslam is finishing his second term as a popular governor, following the business-friendly, center-right path of other successful Tennessee Republicans.

Despite a national climate advantageous to Democrats, there’s little sign those winds are blowing through Tennessee. There’s no danger Republicans will lose control of the state legislature or any of their seven (out of nine) U.S. House seats. The GOP’s nominee to succeed Haslam as governor is businessman Bill Lee, who is running 13 points ahead of Democrat Karl Dean, the liberal former mayor of Nashville. The Senate race, however, is one Republicans have long feared they could lose and where Democrats see an opportunity.

Bob Corker, the one-time mayor of Chattanooga, was the only Republican Senate candidate to win an open seat in the Democratic wave of 2006. Last year, Corker announced his retirement after two terms and national Democrats recruited Bredesen, widely seen as the only possible contender. “When Bob Corker said he wasn’t running again, people started calling me, and I kind of feel like I had some unfinished business,” Bredesen said.

Corker’s retirement concerned Republicans worried about defending a seat in an otherwise advantageous year. For Tennessee’s less centrist conservatives, however, this was a chance to finally have one of their own. Corker and the state’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, are relatively moderate establishment Republicans who have rankled the more conservative members of their party. In 2014, Alexander got a primary challenge from state senator Joe Carr, who made a proto-Trumpian argument charging Alexander with being soft on immigration. Carr, who earned a high-profile endorsement from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, got within nine points of Alexander in the GOP primary, coming uncomfortably close to toppling a Tennessee institution.

So it was no surprise that Marsha Blackburn, the eight-term House member from the wealthy suburbs of Nashville, was the consensus choice for the Republican nomination after Bill Haslam declined to run. Blackburn, who is 66 and prefers to be called “congressman,” has cultivated an image as a tenacious right-wing fighter. She made her mark early in her political career as a loud voice in the state senate against a proposed state income tax. The Republican governor who was pushing for the new tax, Don Sundquist, failed, leaving office unpopular and scandal-plagued in 2002. That same year, Blackburn parlayed her role in the income tax fight into a successful bid for Congress—for Sundquist’s old seat.

Over the next few terms, Blackburn compiled a very conservative voting record and embraced the Tea Party movement. In 2009, she was one of several House members to co-sponsor a bill requiring presidential candidates to disclose their birth certificates—a not-so-subtle nod to the conspiracy theory that claimed Barack Obama had not been born in the United States. The “birther” issue was Donald Trump’s first real entry into far-right politics, and Blackburn was one of his staunchest supporters in 2016. She was a frequent cable-news surrogate for his campaign. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted about groping women, when even many conservative female Republicans were abandoning Trump, Blackburn stood by the GOP nominee, albeit a little more tepidly than before.

“I think Donald Trump’s comments were indefensible,” she told CNN on October 10, 2016, while reiterating her support. “We have a binary choice here. . . . You’re going to have one or the other as president of the U.S.; they are both flawed candidates.”

Since his inauguration, Trump has had an unwavering ally in Blackburn. At a rally in Nashville this May, he gave her his highest form of praise—“a very, very early supporter of ours”—and she reciprocated by listing his administration’s accomplishments. “A Supreme Court justice, 40 federal judges, repealing a record number of regulations, tax cuts, decreasing illegal immigration, standing up to China and North Korea, defeating ISIS in Syria,” Blackburn said, the crowd cheering while Trump stood behind her nodding. “And I’m going to tell you right now, Tennessee needs a senator who is going to support President Donald Trump, and I am going to be there to stand with President Donald Trump.” When I asked her in an interview if she disagrees with the president on any issue, Blackburn mentioned she opposes tariffs and believes he has not done enough to curb federal spending.

An otherwise full embrace of Trump seems like a safe bet since he won more than 60 percent of the vote in Tennessee and has maintained more than 50 percent approval there since. But Blackburn’s fealty hasn’t automatically redounded to her benefit. Bredesen led Blackburn in the polls throughout the summer, and the Republican only began to close the gap in mid-August. Blackburn finally pulled ahead at the beginning of October, which she attributes to the controversial confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh. According to Real Clear Politics’s average of polls, Blackburn now has a solid, if not impenetrable, nine-point lead.

In our interview, Blackburn downplayed her campaign’s slow start. “This is his fourth statewide race,” she said of Bredesen, who lost a 1994 race for governor against Don Sundquist. “And he served two terms as governor, so he had name ID.”

His familiar name may have bought him some initial interest from swing voters, but Bredesen now seems to be suffering from a case of Republicans coming home. Blackburn has earned ridicule from the mainstream press for her performance in the two televised debates in which she repeated the names “Chuck Schumer” and “Hillary Clinton” over and over, but it’s a consistent theme for her campaign. “If Phil Bredesen had his way, Hillary Clinton would be president,” she tweeted in August, and during an October 10 debate in Knoxville, she mentioned the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee nearly 20 times. It’s a simple, even inane message, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

Consider how Bredesen has responded. One TV ad features Republican supporters of Bredesen. Another focuses on his lifelong backing of gun rights. Perhaps sensing that the Kavanaugh hearings weren’t working in the Democrats’ favor in Tennessee, Bredesen announced the day before the final confirmation vote that he would have voted to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. His pitch to swing voters in the final weeks before Election Day has been that Blackburn is too extreme and too partisan—and that he’s not as liberal as she’s claiming he is.

That’s been Bredesen’s task the entire campaign: peel off enough GOP-leaning voters and count on a depressed Republican turnout. But Trump’s interest in the race—he returned to the state on October 1 for a rally for Blackburn in Johnson City—and the Kavanaugh episode may be enough to get the conservative faithful to turn out at the polls. Bredesen has also given his opponent some easy shots. The night before the final debate in Knoxville, for instance, Bredesen attended a fundraiser for his campaign with Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is best known nationally for his gun-control advocacy. Blackburn took the opportunity at the debate to “welcome” Bredesen back from his trip up north to visit America’s foremost gun grabber.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, Bredesen defended his decision to get financial help from out of state. “Michael Bloomberg is the head of one of the largest media companies in the world,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t agree with him on everything, certainly not about guns.” The next day, in Johnson City, one of the first people I see at Democratic headquarters waiting for Bredesen is a woman wearing a T-shirt from Moms Demand Action, a Bloomberg-backed gun-control group.

That Bredesen supporter is an outlier in East Tennessee and throughout the state, however. Tennessee is a conservative place that went big for Donald Trump and where Republicans enjoy supermajorities in the general assembly. When the Mississippi-born Blackburn says, as she often does, that she will take “Tennessee values” to Washington, it’s not only a dig at Bredesen’s Yankee roots. It’s a blunt reminder to voters: You’re Republicans, so don’t forget to vote accordingly.

That message would be insufficient in a campaign about ideas and issues. But in Tennessee, as in much of the country’s contested elections, this is a race about political identity—and nothing else.