Trump-Backed Tennessee Political Newcomer Wins GOP Battle for Senate Seat

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)

MANCHESTER, Tenn. (CN) — In the race that will help decide who will fill the seat of outgoing Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, Dr. Manny Sethi failed to overcome the weight of President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his opponent, U.S. former ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty.  

Hagerty enjoyed the early and vocal support of the president during the state’s Republican primary in his bid to follow Alexander in a state that handily supported Trump in 2016. Alexander, who announced he would not seek reelection at the end of 2018, worked in the Senate for almost 18 years.  

Taking the stage with his wife, two children and mother, Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon and a son of immigrants from India, told supporters his campaign that came up short despite going round after round with his opponent showed the “incredible power of the American story.” 

With the results partially in, Hagerty leads with 301,311 votes to Sethi’s 239,973. He had approximately 50% of the vote to Sethi’s approximately 40%.

The Associated Press called the race a few minutes past 9 p.m. 

Before Thursday, 487,842 Tennesseans showed up to cast ballots in the state’s early voting period while 95,923 voters cast ballots by mail, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office.  

Hagerty will face Marquita Bradshaw, a Memphis resident concerned with environmental policy, who earned about 33% percent of the vote in Thursday’s Democratic primary. Bradshaw upset attorney James Mackler, who had raised $2.1 million dollars in his quest to run for Senate, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.  

In a statement, Hagerty noted he was supported not only by Trump, but Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and others who want to increase the number of “Trump conservatives in the United States Senate.” 

“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,” Hagerty said. 

While Alexander’s political career included working as a Secretary of Education, a stint in Tennessee’s Governor’s Mansion and a presidential run in the 90s, Hagerty and Sethi both claim neophyte candidate status. It is the first either of them ran for office and both claimed outsider status.  

At campaign stops, Hagerty, 60, leaned into Trump’s endorsement of him and his yard signs tout the endorsement and calling Trump the outsider candidate — even after he spent almost four years in the White House. Meanwhile, Sethi, who testified on Capitol Hill in opposition to the Affordable Care Act, described Republicans’ failure to repeal the act one of the greatest broken political promises. 

The similarities had turned the race into a sharp elbowing match, with both candidates attempting to show how the other is a faux conservative. 

For instance, Sethi has attacked Hagerty’s previous ties to Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican who turned into a GOP pariah after voting to impeach Trump and marching with Black Lives Matter protesters. Sethi called for an investigation into Hagerty’s campaign after it allegedly failed to report — and then quietly returned — a donation by Romney.  

Meanwhile, the Hagerty campaign has criticized Sethi’s lack of support for Trump during the 2016 election and accused Sethi of voicing support for Obamacare.  

As the pair has crisscrossed a state experiencing rising cases of Covid-19, they have held events without masks and have shaken the hands of supporters. On the day before the election, the Hamilton County Health Department said a person attended the Lincoln Day Dinner while in their infectious period, an event both Hagerty and Sethi attended without masks. Both candidates said they were tested for Covid-19 and tested negative.

At Sethi’s watch party, mask use among the candidate’s supporters were mixed.  

Speaking to Sethi’s supporters at his watch party before the race was called, former Congressman Zach Wamp, who backed the doctor, called Sethi the kind of candidate that could grow the base of voters supporting the Republican Party and described Sethi’s campaign as a David and Goliath struggle.  

“We don’t need more rich white men in the United States Senate,” Wamp told the crowd.  

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