Tennessee’s Senate candidates use opioid disaster to sway undecided voters

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The number of opioid-related deaths in Tennessee has skyrocketed over the last two decades. More people are now dying in the state of drug overdoses than motor vehicle accidents, and 72 percent of the state’s overdose deaths are opioid-related.

Because of that, the opioid crisis has become front and center in Tuesday’s midterm Senate race. The candidates vying for Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s seat, Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredeson, are using the hot-button topic to sway undecided voters before Election Day.

“This is an epidemic that is swallowing a generation whole. People are dying every day,” said Brian Sullivan, public relations director for Addiction Campuses, a Nashville-based company offering addiction treatment programs across the United States.

The crisis ranks as a top-three issue among Tennesseans and has dominated the political narrative of several midterm races, especially in other hard-hit states like West Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

“Everybody has somebody they know that has been adversely impacted by this,” said Blackburn, a congresswoman who represents Tennessee’s 7th district. “This is a problem that is not only affecting communities, it affects families and it is something that Congress needs to continue to give their best effort to solve.”

Experts say Tennessee is one of the most highly prescribed states in the country, which could be one of the factors fueling addiction.

Experts say Tennessee is one of the most highly prescribed states in the country, which could be one of the factors fueling addiction.

“I think we need to do some substantial things about it,” said Bredeson, the former mayor of Nashville and two-term governor of the Volunteer State. “I think there are straightforward things we can do on the prevention side.”

Blackburn has called for stiffer penalties for drug suppliers and for increased border security to prevent drugs from entering the U.S.

“We need to secure the southern border so that we are making sure we end the inflow of drugs,” Blackburn has said. “We end the inflow of gangs and sex traffickers…that we are protecting the sovereignty of this nation.”

But Bredesen has attacked her record, airing an ad claiming she has accepted more than $800,000 from the pharmaceutical industry and introduced “legislation in the middle of this crisis that’s going to make it more difficult for [Drug Enforcement Administration] to do their job.”

He is referring to a 2016 bill she co-sponsored, got unanimously passed and signed into law by then-President Barack Obama that critics say crippled the DEA’s ability to crack down on suspicious drug imports.

In a 2017 investigation by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post, DEA whistleblowers said the law, originally promoted to ease regulations to make it easier for patients to access necessary medications, instead made it easier for drug companies to distribute opioids across the U.S.

Blackburn has vowed to lead the effort to revise the law and fix any unintended consequences.

“She certainly had to play a lot of defense on it and Bredeson has made sure that it’s talked about a lot,” said political analyst John Geer. “I think it could end up making a difference, but this is going to be a very close race. This is a competitive race, and no one thought it would be.”

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Still, President Trump won Tennessee by 26 points in 2016. So Bredeson faces an uphill battle to try and win over Republicans in this red state.

“I belong to the Democratic Party. It’s an organization I belong to, not a religion…my worldview comes from me…and overall overlaps with some Republicans, I guess,” Bredeson said. “I want to run on my own ideas and not simply attach myself onto what national Democrats believe because I don’t always agree.”

The Real Clear Politics average from October 22 to 30 showed Blackburn leading Bredeson by over 5 points.

Regardless of who wins Tuesday, Tennesseans say this issue will remain a top priority for years to come.

“This is not something that should be politicized,” said Sullivan, who works for Addiction Campuses, “but something that we should all agree on — and that is to save lives, to keep Tennesseans alive.”

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The Real Clear Politics average from October 22-30 showed Blackburn leading Bredeson by over five points.

Regardless of who wins Tuesday, Tennesseans say this issue will remain a top priority for years to come.

“This is not something that should be politicized, but something that we should all agree on…and that is to save lives, to keep Tennesseans alive,” Sullivan said.

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