In the lone Thursday primary of the year, former United States Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty won the Tennessee Senate Republican primary over his challenger, physician Manny Sethi. Hagerty won with 50.8% of the vote compared to Sethi’s 39.4% that included all but twelve of the ninety-five counties in the state. Of the four metropolitan areas of Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, Sethi won the latter three while Hagerty took the Memphis area of Shelby County.
Bill Hagerty will face the Democratic nominee Marquita Bradshaw in the general election. However, it is not expected to be much of a challenge, as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee backed Bradshaw’s challenger in the Democratic primary and has stayed relatively absent from the race, something that looks as if it will continue as the Democrats focus their efforts on reclaiming the Senate elsewhere.
Mr. Hagerty, a former private-equity executive and ambassador in the Trump Administration, was President Trump’s favorite to win from the start. Prior to leaving his post in Tokyo as ambassador, Hagerty had already received an endorsement from the president, despite previously being non-supportive of the president in 2016. Hagerty was a delegate to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio before becoming the financial chair in Tennessee for the Trump Victory Committee.
On Wednesday night, the president continued to push Tennessee Republicans to vote for Hagerty, calling him a “Trump conservative”, “a friend of mine”, and “a great guy” on a phone call with Hagerty supporters.
Hagerty quickly aligned himself with the president once he was endorsed, including hiring the same political consultants that ran Marsha Blackburn’s successful 2018 senatorial campaign. Along with keeping close ties to the president politically, Mr. Hagerty also stayed close to President Trump financially. After receiving a campaign check from Senator Mitt Romney’s PAC, Hagerty, despite being previously close friends with Romney, returned the check and called Romney a supporter of “liberal” policies, “indistinguishable from Obama”, and one of the “most despised names in Tennessee.”
Manny Sethi ran a populist campaign, pitting himself as an insurgent candidate against the GOP establishment similar to how Donald Trump ran his 2016 presidential campaign. Mr. Sethi focused his campaign around two themes: building a wall on the southern border and firing Dr. Anthony Fauci. Sethi also attempted to portray Mr. Hagerty as another establishment politician, going so far as to call Hagerty a “pawn” for the Senate GOP establishment that is unfaithful to President Trump’s policies.
Mr. Sethi also attempted to connect Bill Hagerty to the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting a supportive statement from one of the companies where Mr. Hagerty served as a board member. In return, Hagerty consistently, and even purposely, mispronounced Mr. Sethi’s name as “Set-ee” and criticized his opponent for once donating $50 in 2008 to the liberal fundraising group ActBlue.
The Tennessee primary was interesting because it showed sharp divisions within the Republican Party itself, highlighting both the transformation the party has shown in the last four years and the coming split the party will face in the next four years. Bill Hagerty, the candidate with the more establishment background, was endorsed by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Manny Sethi, the populist insurgent, was endorsed by Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul of Texas and Kentucky, respectively.
What makes this so interesting, despite the fact that different senators supported different candidates, was the strategy behind it. As President Trump continues to re-make the Republican Party in his image, he has started to become the establishment figure himself. On the other hand, senators like Cruz and Paul still do not feel as if the Republican Party is as ingrained with the Trump-like populism that they feel is needed within the GOP, thus their desire to support the anti-establishment candidate like Manny Sethi.
Only time will tell on the future of the Republican Party, but the split that many potential 2024 presidential candidates felt in Tennessee will continue to grow larger and more visible as the days continue.