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Who Might Run for Alexander’s Tennessee Senate Seat in 2020?

All eyes are on outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and Rep.-elect Mark Green

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, seen here at a rally with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, is a likely candidate for the open Senate seat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s announcement on Monday that he won’t seek a fourth term opens up a 2020 Senate seat in a state President Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2016.

All eyes are on outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, who could clear the field and would likely be a successor in the same Republican mold as Alexander.

But Rep.-elect Mark Green has spoken about wanting to run for Senate in the past, potentially even in a primary against Alexander, so no matter who gets in, it could be a divisive GOP contest. Tennessee’s Senate primary will likely be a lower turnout affair in 2020 because the nominating contest for president will be held in March, much earlier than the Senate primary in August. 

As recently as last week, it seemed Alexander’s team was gearing up for him to seek a fourth term, when an internal poll showed the senator with a 65 percent favorability rating among likely Republican primary voters. North Star Opinion Research surveyed 600 people from Nov. 26-29, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Alexander had also pushed back against recent comments from Green suggesting a link between autism and vaccines. “Vaccines take deadly, awful, ravaging diseases from horror to history,” Alexander’s official account tweeted on Thursday in an implicit swipe at his would-be primary challenger. 

Green tweeted his praise for Alexander Monday after the senator announced he’d be retiring. A state senator who easily won Tennessee’s open 7th District last month, Green is a retired Army flight surgeon who wrote a book about treating Saddam Hussein after his capture. He briefly ran for governor in 2017, then dropped out when Trump nominated him to be secretary of the Army. He withdrew his name from consideration because of past controversial statements, and then got into the 7th District race, where he ran unopposed in the primary. Because his interest in running for Senate was well-known, other potential candidates may have sat out the 7th District contest, assuming Green wasn’t long for the House seat. 

Plenty of other Republicans could take a look at running for the open Senate seat. GOP Rep. David Kustoff, who was elected to the open 8th District in 2016, is interested. He chaired Alexander’s first general election campaign for Senate in 2002. Trump endorsed Kustoff this year before his primary.

Kustoff’s predecessor, former Rep. Stephen Fincher, still has $1.7 million in his campaign account. After declining to seek re-election in 2016, the vocal defender of the Export-Import Bank briefly ran for Senate in 2018. 

Another potential candidate could be U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty, who previously served as director of presidential appointments for the 2016 Trump transition team. He also worked in the George H.W. Bush administration.

GOP operatives also mentioned University of Tennessee president and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd as a possible candidate. Boyd finished second in the GOP gubernatorial primary with 24 percent of the vote in the six-way contest. Rep. Diane Black, who came in third in the primary, could take a look at the race but has been mentioned for a post in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration. 

Orthopedic surgeon Manis “Manny” Sethi has attracted some local attention and has reportedly spoken to longtime Tennessee operative Chip Saltsman about a bid. He is close to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, with whom he edited a book about health policy. Another name that’s come up is Jeff Webb, the founder of a Memphis-based company that makes cheerleading uniforms that was recently sold to Bain Capital. He had considered running for Sen. Bob Corker’s open seat in 2017.

Democrats contested the open Tennessee Senate seat in 2018, but former Gov. Phil Bredesen, recognized as the only Democrat who could make the race competitive, ended up losing to Rep. Marsha Blackburn by more than 10 points.

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