Tennessee primaries: Lots of candidates, and some ugliness, in GOP fights for open seats

Republican retirements in Senate and 1st District in House attract big field

Bill Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump in his bid for the open Senate seat in Tennessee. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Bill Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump in his bid for the open Senate seat in Tennessee. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 5, 2020 at 1:07pm

Primaries in Tennessee for Senate and the 1st District have attracted big fields, a lot of money and some ugliness as voters pick nominees Thursday to replace a pair of retiring Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Phil Roe.

Millions have been spent in the Republican Senate primary, which drew high-profile endorsements for Bill Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, and insurgent candidate Manny Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon. The two have exchanged blows over the airwaves challenging each other’s conservative bona fides. 

A Trafalgar Group poll, released in early July, showed Hagerty with a slim 42 percent to 39 percent lead over Sethi. The poll had a margin of error of 2.92 points.

Plenty of money has flown in the GOP primary so far. Hagerty raised $12.3 million (including $6.5 million in personal loans) and spent $9.7 million on the race through July 15. Sethi’s $4.6 million fundraising haul included $1.9 million in personal contributions to his campaign, and he spent $4.2 million through mid-July. A third candidate, former Shelby County Commissioner George Flinn, self-funded his campaign to the tune of $4.9 million. The primary also saw another $4.2 million in independent expenditure spending, with $1.7 million going to support Hagerty and $2.5 million on Sethi’s behalf.

One of Hagerty’s newest ads accuses Sethi of not contributing to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and says he’s “too liberal for Tennessee.” Trump carried the Volunteer State by 26 points.

Sethi narrates one of his own ads, decrying Hagerty’s attacks before tying him to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, whose vote for Trump’s impeachment has made him a common villain in some GOP primary races. Hagerty donated to and had roles in Romey’s 2008 and 2012 presidential runs.

“End of the day, it’s about who you believe, me or Mitt Romney’s guy,” Sethi says in the ad.

Trump, who gave Hagerty his endorsement a year ago, is appearing with his Senate pick Wednesday night in a tele-town hall.

Hagerty also has the endorsement of the state’s junior senator, Republican Marsha Blackburn, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. Sethi picked up support from GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

On the Democratic side, retired Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot and Tennessee National Guardsman James Mackler is the leading candidate in a five-way field. Mackler briefly ran for Senate in 2018 before stepping aside when former Gov. Phil Bredesen entered the race.

House heat

Trump has not endorsed anyone for the open 1st District seat in East Tennessee. But candidates seeking the Republican nod to replace Roe are putting as little daylight as possible between themselves and the president, touting themselves as Trump defenders and attacking their opponents as “swamp creatures.”

The crowded field includes outsider Diana Harshbarger, who has largely self-financed her campaign, and state Rep. Timothy Hill, who has the backing of the anti-tax Club for Growth.

[Race to succeed Roe gets tight as candidates spend big, and hit hard]

The primary is likely to determine who voters will send to Washington in a seat that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the House since 1879.

Harshbarger, a pharmacist who has never held office, has emphasized her outsider status and attacked challengers Hill and longtime state Sen. Rusty Crowe.

The House race, eclipsed by the Senate brawl, has been lower-profile, but did attract attention from the Club for Growth, which has spent about $858,000 supporting Hill and opposing Harshbarger and Crowe, Federal Election Commission data shows.

A poll commissioned by the club found Hill topping the field, followed by Harshbarger and Crowe. Another poll conducted for WJHL last week found Crowe in the lead, ahead of Harshbarger and Hill. In both cases, the leads were within the margin of error.

The only Democrat actively campaigning for 1st District is Air Force veteran Blair Walsingham, The Associated Press reported.

Democrats challenged

In the 5th District, anchored in Nashville, longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper faces a primary challenger for the first time in a decade.

Cooper is one of the top 10 Democratic moderates who broke with their party the most often, according to CQ Roll Call Vote Studies. He faces Keeda Haynes, a Black legal advisor and former public defender who became a lawyer after being incarcerated for a crime she says she did not commit.

The progressive challenger, who raised $101,000 to Cooper’s $692,000, is also joined in the primary by musician and small-business owner Joshua Rawlings, who trails even further behind in fundraising.

And in the Memphis-based 9th District, Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen once again faces a primary challenger with some local profile. Corey Strong, the former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, is running and has the backing of Brand New Congress, the group formed by former Bernie Sanders staffers. But Strong raised just $41,000 through July 15. Cohen, in contrast, brought in $440,000 and had $1.2 million in the bank.