In early 2019, longtime Republican Senator Lamar Alexander announced that he would not run for re-election in 2020. For most of the year, Republican insiders were waiting with bated breath to see who would emerge as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. There’s no shortage of Republican politicians in this increasingly red state. Potential candidates included former Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark Green and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann. In July 2019, President Trump announced that he was endorsing Bill Hagerty, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. A native of Gallatin, Tennessee, Hagerty is a businessman who previously served in Gov. Haslam’s cabinet. He advised President George H.W. Bush on domestic policy and served as national finance chair on Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. Since he has the backing of President Trump, you would think that he would be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. Not so fast.
For most of the campaign, Hagerty did not see any potential threats in the primary. Internal polls from his campaign had him leading by as many as 17 points. But that has changed in recent weeks. Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon at Vanderbilt Medical Center, has emerged as a formidable threat to Hagerty. A recent poll from JMC Analytics had Hagerty leading by just 4 points, 36%-32%, with 20% of voters undecided. The primary has gotten so close that Hagerty has started going on the attack.
As of the end of the second quarter, both candidates have accumulated high burn rates in fundraising. To date, Hagerty has raised over $12.3 million and has spent nearly $9.7 million, leaving him with just $2.7 million on hand. Sethi has raised $4.6 million and has spent $4.2 million, leaving him with nearly $400,000 in the bank. But both candidates are heavily self-funding. According to Inside Elections analyst Jacob Rubashkin, Hagerty has spent $5 million of his own money. Sethi, a political novice, has spent $2 million. They have both earned heavy-hitting endorsements: Hagerty has been endorsed by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Sethi has been endorsed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), former Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, and several Republican members of the Tennessee State Legislature. Both candidates are continuing to campaign in-person, even as Tennessee continues to see a rise in COVID-19 cases. Masks have been encouraged, but have not been required.
In television ads, both have tried to run to each other’s right. They have both denounced what they call “liberal mobs” who are destroying cities, churches and statues. They have also touted their pro-life beliefs and religious views. Hagerty said in a recent ad that anyone who burns an American flag or destroys a monument should go to prison. Sethi went viral with an ad criticizing the recent restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Hagerty recently attacked Sethi for a $50 donation to 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Perriello. Sethi responded to the attack with an ad featuring his wife, Maya, in which she attacks Hagerty for donating to Mitt Romney and Al Gore.
What Does it all Mean for November?
The winner of this contentious primary is likely to face military veteran James Mackler (D) in the general election. They would be overwhelmingly favored to hold the seat for Republicans in this solidly red state. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to earn more than 60% of the vote in the Volunteer State since Richard Nixon in 1972. Democrats were optimistic about their chances of flipping the open Senate seat in 2018. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen was seen as a top-tier recruit early in the cycle. But in the end, he could not overcome the state’s partisan lean in a federal race. He lost by double digits to Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn. So while the Republican primary may be contentious, it shouldn’t impact the party’s chances of holding onto the seat. With President Trump leading the ticket, the Republican nominee will romp to victory.