Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental justice advocate who has run her Senate campaign on a shoestring budget, won an upset victory in the state’s Democratic primary on Thursday, brushing aside a party-backed candidate who had significantly out-raised her.
Ms. Bradshaw, a political novice who grew up in South Memphis, won by roughly 9 percentage points to become the first Black woman to gain a major party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.
She faces an uphill climb against the Republican nominee, Bill Hagerty, to claim the seat held by the retiring Senator Lamar Alexander. Tennessee has not elected a Democratic senator since Al Gore, 30 years ago.
In an interview on Friday, Ms. Bradshaw embraced her status as an underdog.
“Working people showed that my viability was different,” she said. “I knew it was going to happen — I could see the momentum.”
Ms. Bradshaw finished ahead of four opponents, including James Mackler, an Army veteran backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, had raised more than $2 million. The most recent filings available showed that Ms. Bradshaw’s campaign had raised only $8,400 by the end of March.
But she said that in the race’s final weeks, her campaign saw a surge in small-dollar donations from across the state, which she attributed in large part to a platform that wove together issues of environmental and social justice — issues, she said, that too many Tennesseans are grappling with day-to-day and that too few lawmakers are currently addressing.
On the campaign trail, Ms. Bradshaw wrote and spoke frequently about environmental racism, drawing on her experience growing up near a Superfund site.
“People here know how important it is for an environmental-justice voice to be in the U.S. Senate,” she said. “It’s about the importance of shaping a just transition away from pollution. People’s health and lives are on the line.”
Ms. Bradshaw rejected the notion that Tennessee was a decisively red state. As an organizer, she said, she was intimately aware of just how many people across the state simply don’t vote — more, she said, than active Republican and Democratic voters combined.
She said that the strategy of “relational organizing” that enabled her to identify new voters in the primary would underpin her campaign ahead of the general election as well.
The Tennessee Democratic Party also believes Ms. Bradshaw’s candidacy has the opportunity to entice Republicans who are perhaps jaded by the party’s rightward lurch in the Trump era.
“I am always hearing from people who say, ‘I didn’t leave the Republican Party — the Republican Party left me.’ And those are the other voters that we will be going after,” said Mary Mancini, the chairwoman of the state party.
She said that Tennessee’s Republican Senate primary, in which Mr. Hagerty traded attacks with his opponent, Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon, had reflected “some of the most divisive campaigns in Tennessee history.”
“The G.O.P. and Tennessee candidates have become so extreme that they are alienating more Tennesseans every day,” she added. “We have an incredible opportunity to make the case to those voters that there is a better option for you — that you have a real choice here.”
And when it comes to the party’s base voters, Ms. Mancini said there was already palpable enthusiasm about the historic nature of Ms. Bradshaw’s nomination. “What we saw last night was that Tennessee Democrats were clearly looking to elevate voices of women of color,” including the race’s runner-up, Robin Kimbrough, she said. “This is an important time in Tennessee history.”
Ms. Bradshaw appeared to invoke that fact on Thursday evening as she delivered her victory speech.
“When we entered this race, many told us that we didn’t have a place here,” she said. “And hard-working Tennesseans said different tonight.”
The Sunrise Movement, an influential group of progressive climate activists, cheered Ms. Bradshaw’s victory in a tweet and praised her platform. “It’s 2020 and big things are happening,” the organization said.
Still, for all the enthusiasm Ms. Bradshaw may have sparked among the state’s liberal base, Tennessee remains one of the reddest states in the country, noted Tom Ingram, former chief of staff to Mr. Alexander. Mr. Hagerty defeated a crowded field by campaigning almost exclusively on President Trump’s endorsement.
“This is still Trump country,” Mr. Ingram said.
Matt Stevens contributed reporting.