Political Newcomers in Bitter Fight to Replace Tennessee Senator

The three frontrunners in the race — two Republicans and a Democrat — have all claimed to be political outsiders. All are running for office for the first time. Each has responded differently to campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic. And the race has turned into bitter sniping.

Tennessee Republican Senate candidate Bill Hagerty speaks with supporters after addressing the Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club in Ooltewah, Tenn., on July 21, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Bill Hagerty, former ambassador to Japan, spoke to the Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club last week and once again stressed the one thing setting him apart from the other 14 Republicans competing in the Tennessee Senate primary: an endorsement by President Donald Trump.

Hagerty said he had gotten off the phone with Trump that morning, before getting up to address the group in front of a flower arrangement of white, pinks and mint green that spilled over a fireplace mantle. About three dozen people listened to Hagerty at a luncheon held in an old courthouse turned southern tearoom.

As the Senate candidate described the threats he sees in today’s world, from China to “the angry mob” of protesters, he declared the “silent majority” would turn out in November.

Trump, Hagerty claimed, calls the former ambassador the most articulate person he has on issues surrounding China.

“There’s only one true, Trump conservative in this race and that’s me,” Hagerty declared at the July 21 appearance in the Chattanooga suburb of Ooltewah.  

After 18 years, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander is leaving the Senate. The former presidential candidate, education secretary and Tennessee governor announced his decision in December 2018. And in a few short days, on Aug. 6, Tennesseans will decide which Republican and Democrat will face off in November to fill his seat.

John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said Alexander’s influence looms large in American politics, with his focus on higher education and education reform, and he’s a politician who works across the aisle in a time when that move has become rare.

“I think the institution will miss having Lamar Alexander around,” Geer said. “He’ll go down as one of the great politicians of the era.”

The three frontrunners in the race – two Republicans and a Democrat – have all claimed outsider status. All are running for political office for the first time. Each has responded differently to campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic. And the race has turned into bitter sniping.

During his address to the Republican Women’s Club, Hagerty parried an attack about his past association with Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who was the Republican nominee for president in 2012.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed,” Hagerty said, explaining Romney had marched with Black Lives Matter protesters.

As Hagerty has hit the campaign trail, holding events in a state with rising cases of the coronavirus sans mask, he’s claimed the pandemic has hindered his ability to effectively campaign.

Speaking with Courthouse News after the event, he said the coronavirus crisis has prevented him from holding large rallies, namely ones where Trump could address a Tennessee crowd.

In the meantime, Hagerty sits on the White House’s Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups. The White House has described Hagerty as a thought leader on the task force.

There are two things Hagerty is focused on, he said. The first is deregulation, such as slashing permitting regulation, such as ones for transportation projects, and to accelerate projects in the pipeline by cutting back on the regulatory review. Hagerty also said he’s concerned with countering China, as he was while he was ambassador to Japan.

Trump, Hagerty said, has told him he “needs my help right now. He can’t wait for me to get up to the United States Senate.”

The federal judiciary is at a crossroads, Hagerty said. He worries that Democrats may pack the Supreme Court if they come to power and he sees it as one of the biggest risks conservatives face this election year. The result will be a fundamentally changed American landscape, he said.

Dr. Manny Sethi, who is running in the Republican primary for the Senate seat to be vacated by Lamar Alexander, leaves a campaign event in Cleveland, Tenn., on July 20, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/ Daniel Jackson)

Hagerty’s top Republican opponent is Dr. Manny Sethi, a physician from the Nashville area.Both Republican candidates vowed to back “constitutionalist judges” appointed to the federal judiciary.

When asked about how his view on judges differs from Sethi’s view, Hagerty quipped, “I don’t think he knows what a constitutionalist judge is.”

Geer, who has studied attack ads in campaigns, said Hagerty is the frontrunner but the race has taken a negative turn. The Hagerty campaign has begun calling Sethi a fake conservative or trying to attach the nickname “Massachusetts Manny” to the doctor, for instance.

The professor said it’s a sign Hagerty is worried about losing the primary. Unlike attack ads in presidential races that focus on the great divides of both candidates, the attacks in the Tennessee primary between Hagerty and Sethi circled around past campaign donations, support for Romney and the people both candidates have associated with before they announced their first-time candidacies.

“They’re fighting in a heated fashion over what in fact are very small differences,” Geer said.

The day before Hagerty spoke at the tearoom, Sethi arrived to a bakery in Cleveland, Tenn., in an RV painted dull orange.

Sethi, the son of first-generation immigrants from India, said his family came to the country legally, something the candidate stresses. His family ended up in the rural community of Hillsboro in Coffee County. His mom, an OB/GYN, “delivered babies and the babies of the babies,” he said. His dad, the county doctor, tackled everything thrown at him and occasionally stepped in to serve as marriage counselor and psychologist.

Sethi, who has testified before Congress about the burdens the hospital system in Tennessee faces because of the Affordable Care Act, described the failure of Republicans to repeal the law as the “single greatest broken political promise in American history.”

But he said he has a plan: price transparency, an individual insurance market and making health insurance tax deductible for companies.

He says he’s an outsider who has never even run for student council. Like Hagerty, Sethi promised to stand up to the “angry mob” that calls racist anyone who tells it differently. And he wants a “second industrial revolution to bring jobs and supply chains back” to the nation because of a reliance on China, for instance, mentioning the 20 or so antibiotics the U.S. relies on China to manufacture.

And with that, Sethi turned to the scandal swirling around his campaign: a $50 donation he describes as going to a candidate who was a family friend’s brother-in-law. In an interview with Courthouse News after the event, Sethi said the money was for two T-shirts.

Several months ago, Sethi was on call in a level one trauma center, a place where doctors did not know who had Covid-19 and who didn’t, where medical staff wore hazmat suits and anxiety sat on the faces of nurses.

During that time, Sethi showed his wife where the will and trust were kept.

“I very strongly felt that this was the battle of our generation and if I was going to go down this was the way I was going to do it,” he said.  

But these days he shakes hands, hosts campaign events and does not wear a mask because “we put out the wildfire and there are brush fires as we return to work,” he said.  Most of the people who are getting the disease now, he claimed, are younger and hospitals are able to keep handling the capacity. And America and Tennessee can’t shut down again, Sethi said. 

He also said activist judges have legislated from the bench, and he would support judges from outside the beltway who hail from smaller town America, originalists in their interpretation as well as anti-abortion and pro-gun.

As an example of an activist judge, Sethi pointed to the Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, who recently issued Supreme Court rulings on abortion and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  

Sethi said Hagerty has in essence molded himself to the political winds in order to make a shot for the Senate seat. As the doctor tells it, Hagerty supported Romney’s presidential bid over Tennessee son Fred Thompson and opposed the candidacy of Trump before ultimately backing him after he won the nomination.

Sethi said Trump’s endorsement is about the only thing Hagerty has and the former ambassador hasn’t spent a lot of time describing what he would do for the state of Tennessee.

Nashville attorney James Mackler is running in the Tennessee Democrat primary for an open Senate seat. (Photo courtesy of James Mackler for U.S. Senate)

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Senate primary, Nashville attorney James Mackler has collected the most money of the candidates vying for the party’s nomination, with $615,000 cash on hand and $1.5 million already spent, according to the campaigns’ reports to the Federal Election Commission

By comparison, Hagerty spent nearly $9.7 million and has almost $2.7 million cash on hand. Sethi has spent $4.2 million and has almost $386,000 cash on hand, according to recent FEC filings.  

Mackler made rural health care a focal point of his campaign. He announced his run in front of a shuttered rural hospital in McKenzie, Tennessee, at the beginning of 2019, a few months after the hospital suddenly closed.

And over the last few months, the rural hospital closures, the opioid crisis and the rising rates of Covid-19 have created “a perfect storm” that hit Tennessee.

“People want change,” he said in a phone interview.

The Democrat proposes expanding Medicaid, lowering the cost of drugs and stabilizing costs.

In June 2019, Alexander introduced a bipartisan bill along with Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, designed to lower health care costs by, for instance, attacking surprise billing.

“But it never even got a vote from Mitch McConnell’s Senate, so I look forward to bringing that back up,” Mackler said.

The way he tells it, Mackler shuttered his law practice after the planes hit the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 and he flew Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq. After that, he became a JAG officer prosecuting sexual assault cases in the military, mostly at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox. These days, he serves in the Tennessee National Guard.

Mackler said if he were senator, he’d be looking for judges who are qualified and unbiased. He’s worried that the rule of law is currently under attack and he believes the Senate should return to letting the American Bar Association assist in vetting candidates.

The candidates running in the GOP primary, Mackler said, would “be rubber stamps for the president.”

While Hagerty and Sethi have taken to the road, appearing at events across the state, Mackler said their campaigns have been an “expensive, white-hot race to the bottom.”

“Leaders put the health and safety of the people they seek to serve ahead of their own self-interest,” Mackler said.

He’s been running a virtual campaign, having remote conversations with voters.

As the early voting period wraps up in Tennessee, the Secretary of State’s Office reported that 473,000 voters cast early ballots or voted by mail as of Friday morning – about 293,000 in the Republican primary and 173,000 in the Democratic primary.

Alexander, whose office declined a request for an interview, issued a statement noting that Hagerty had the support of Trump and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, which should help the former ambassador next Thursday.  

But he shied away from endorsing anyone for his seat. 

“My experience has been Tennesseans didn’t elect me to tell them how to vote,” he said.

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