Politics

Tennessee picks Trump-backed Bill Hagerty to be Senate Republican nominee

Last year, Trump publicly endorsed Hagerty before he even announced his campaign. That should’ve been enough in a conservative state where Republicans overwhelmingly approve of the President.
But the primary election on Thursday to replace retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander turned into a bitter, competitive contest between Hagerty and Dr. Manny Sethi over who could be Tennessee’s Trump.
Hagerty and Sethi campaigned as Trump loyalists, even though they found things in each other’s backgrounds to try to suggest otherwise. Hagerty founded a private equity firm and served as the state’s economic commissioner under former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Sethi, the son of first-generation immigrants from India, is an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who founded the nonprofit organization Healthy Tennessee.
Trump himself intervened in the primary, reminding voters of his endorsement in a tweet last week and agreeing to a tele-town hall with Hagerty on the eve of the primary.
Hagerty thanked Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn for their support after his primary victory.
“Now more than ever, we need strong conservative Senators who will not kowtow to the angry liberal mob that is tearing apart the fabric of the America we love. President Trump won’t stand for it, and neither will I,” he said in a statement Thursday night.
The divisive race extended to the Senate Republican conference. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky stumped for Sethi. And the Protect Freedom PAC, a group aligned with Paul, spent over $1.2 million on ads supporting him. In one spot, Paul said directly to the camera, “Tennessee is too conservative a state to keep sending Democrats in Republican clothing to represent Tennessee.”
Blackburn and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas took Hagerty’s side at campaign rallies, saying he will stand with Trump. “Bill is pro-life, he is pro-gun, he is pro-family, he is pro-small business and he is pro-conservative values,” Blackburn said in a recent video posted on Twitter.
The race tightened in recent weeks. Of the 15 Republican candidates, Hagerty spent by far the most on advertising, buying over $5 million worth of airtime, according to Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. He spent most of that campaign cash since the beginning of June. Sethi spent over $2.6 million and Dr. George Flinn, another GOP candidate, spent over $1.5 million. Tom Ingram, a longtime Tennessee Republican strategist, told CNN on Wednesday, “The best I can tell is it’s too close to call.”
Hagerty will now be favored to win the seat in November; Tennessee is a deep red state that Trump carried by 26 points in 2016. The expected Democratic nominee is attorney and former Army helicopter pilot James Mackler.
While the Senate GOP nominee hopes to succeed Alexander, a workhorse legislator who left a leadership position to focus on education and health care policy, the race turned into a series of personal attacks.
Hagerty and Sethi spent much of two recent separate interviews with CNN sharply criticizing each other.
Hagerty called Sethi a “phony conservative” who supported Trump only when it was “convenient.” Sethi tagged Hagerty as a “Mitt Romney Republican,” trying to use Hagerty’s decades-long friendship and campaigning for the former GOP presidential nominee against him. Hagerty defended himself from associations with the Utah senator and Trump critic, criticizing Romney for marching with Black Lives Matter protesters.
“You’ve got senators like Mitt Romney, who, frankly, have lost their way,” Hagerty said.
Hagerty also attacked Sethi for making a $50 donation to a family friend through the online campaign donation portal ActBlue, for receiving a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and for applying for a nonpartisan White House fellowship during the Obama administration to portray his opponent as a Democrat who supports gun control and former President Barack Obama. Sethi responded that the charges were desperate attacks from a “Washington insider.”
“They’re in deep trouble, and they know it,” Sethi said.
He had tried to mar Hagerty’s conservative bona fides, suggesting that Hagerty was a fan of the Black Lives Matter movement after a brokerage firm whose board he served on expressed support for it. Hagerty subsequently resigned from the board and told CNN that Black Lives Matter is “a Marxist organization” that is “against the nuclear family” and “anti-Semitic.”
But despite the sparring between them, there may not have been much politically different between the two leading candidates.
“Both candidates are not very well-known, and they have battled over who is ‘too liberal’ for Tennessee,” Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer, the dean of the College of Arts and Science, told CNN ahead of the primary. “The truth is, both are conservative and there is little difference between them other than Sethi being more of an outsider.”