In Tennessee on Thursday, the Republican primaries for both the Senate and the state’s First Congressional District are likely to be determined by one critical factor: adherence to the doctrine of Donald Trump.
The Senate GOP primary, a race to replace the retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, is a battle among 15 candidates with two frontrunners: Bill Hagerty, a businessman and formerly Trump’s appointment to be ambassador to Japan; and Dr. Manny Sethi, who has decried Hagerty for being inadequately supportive of the president and too close to moderates like Sen. Mitt Romney.
Hagerty has leaned hard on his endorsement from Donald Trump and the strength of his relationship with the president. He served as chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Tennessee, and in an interview with RealClearPolitics in January, he noted that he was the only member of the Trump administration to receive an endorsement from the president.
But that endorsement hasn’t gone quite as far as Hagerty may have hoped, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I spoke with Erik Schelzig, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a political paper focused on state politics. “The Trump endorsement was expected to be a major boon for Hagerty, but the lack of personal appearances by the president in Tennessee has robbed the former ambassador of the excitement that such rallies have generated for other candidates. Writing the Trump endorsement on a campaign sign just isn’t the same thing as appearing onstage with him.”
And those signs haven’t stemmed the tide of ads calling him a “liberal” just like Lamar Alexander, the man he’d be replacing (who is a Republican who voted with Trump 90 percent of the time).
The campaign has attracted national attention from Republicans using the contest as a preview of future fights over what conservatism will look like in the Senate.
Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) have endorsed Hagerty, with Cotton describing him on Twitter as “a strong conservative who will take on China, support law enforcement & stand up for our military.” But Sethi has received endorsements from Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Schelzig told me that in his view, the opposing endorsements “feel like a bit of a proxy war with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.”
The battle for the state’s First Congressional District has similar themes, as 15 Republicans, including several with political experience on the state and local level, battle it out with ads focused on combating Chinese influence and purported “Antifa chaos” taking place in cities far from the district’s borders.
Because the state of Tennessee encompasses two time zones, polls will close in the First Congressional District at 8 pm ET while polls for the center and west of the state will close at 7 pm CT. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that voters cannot vote by mail simply because of concerns over Covid-19, but absentee ballots already filed will be counted, and voters with underlying conditions and their caretakers can vote by mail.
Vox will have live results for the Senate and House primaries, thanks to our partners at Decision Desk HQ.
The GOP Senate primary: A nasty fight between very similar options
In a race led by two very Trumpian men, Sethi is attempting to make his comparative lack of political experience into a positive.
Hagerty’s ties to Romney — he chaired the finance committee of Romney’s 2008 campaign and was a national strategist for his 2012 effort — have been a particular target for Sethi.
“Sethi’s underdog campaign hasn’t been shy about prodding Hagerty as an ‘establishment’ figure from the get-go,” Schelzig said.
The hits have been effective enough that a Hagerty spokesman told the New York Times that the campaign returned a donation from Romney’s Believe in America PAC because “we do not share Senator Romney’s liberal, anti-Trump political positions.”
But while the two candidates have been spending on negative ads aimed at one another (which Schelzig told me had voters “expressing bewilderment about what exactly is going on” given how much the primary was on the back burner due to the pandemic), the two have very few policy differences.
Sethi opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest, while Hagerty has said that there should be “very infrequent” exceptions for those instances. Sethi attracted some attention for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for Covid-19 despite a lack of evidence and demanding that Trump fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, arguing that he “failed” and damaged the American economy.
And while Hagerty supports the use of active-duty military to quell protests (asking Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to do so), Sethi campaign manager Chris Devaney said in a statement back in June:
Manny appreciates President Trump’s leadership, which is why he doesn’t think we need the 101st Airborne in this. Our U.S. military exists to kill bad guys, not to do police work. Our National Guard is more than capable of dealing with these rioters and looters, upholding the rule of law, and busting some heads if need be, to protect our country.
The Fight for 15 (Republicans)
The race for the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s First Congressional District — a heavily Republican area encompassing roughly 710,000 people — has attracted little national attention but is no less contentious. Fifteen Republicans are running to replace Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), who is retiring this year. They include Diana Harshbarger and state Rep. Timothy Hill, the choice of the DC-based conservative super PAC Club for Growth.
As Schelzig told me, Hill aligned with groups like Americans for Prosperity while a state lawmaker, and when he got into the race for the First District, “he pumped most of his money into advertising to boost his poll numbers and demonstrate his viability to the Club for Growth.” And while Hill’s ads have attacked Harshbarger — one arguing that she has sketchy ties to Chinese pharmaceutical interests — Schelzig told me, “The attacks have more to do with dragging her down from her early lead to give Hill a better chance at winning, rather than any deep-felt antipathy toward Harshbarger.”
For her part, Harshbarger is campaigning as an outsider taking on establishment political interests (a familiar tactic in Republican primaries), blasting her opposition for allegedly supporting tax increases and for putting outside interests ahead of Tennesseans.
Her ads also follow a general GOP theme this cycle: Voting for Harshbarger and other Republicans can stem the “chaos” taking place across the country (though, notably, not in her district).
Other Republican candidates for the First Congressional District include State Sen. Rusty Crowe, former Kingsport Mayor John Clark, and former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden, all of whom are well known to voters in the area. But Crowe also has some baggage that might turn off Republican voters — he was a Democrat who switched parties in 1995, and he voted to support a failed effort to expand Medicaid coverage back in 2015. And as former mayors of cities, Clark and Darden both have valuable managerial experience, but Schelzig told me that “there is traditionally some suspicion among Republicans from the more rural parts of the district of those from the cities, whom they perceive as more moderate.”
The Tennessee GOP was unable to comment on either of these races, both of which seem to indicate that the Tennessee Republican Party, like the national party, has turned to Trump as the ultimate arbiter of conservative bona fides. It remains to be seen how voters will respond.
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