Tennessee Republicans pick Bill Hagerty for Lamar Alexander’s Senate seat

DSCC-backed Democrat loses nomination to environmental activist

Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty, right, here with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Osaka, Japan, in July 2019, won his party’s nomination for Senate on Thursday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty, right, here with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Osaka, Japan, in July 2019, won his party’s nomination for Senate on Thursday. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted August 6, 2020 at 9:32pm

With President Donald Trump pumping up supporters ahead of Thursday’s primary, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty fended off a late surge by orthopedic surgeon Manny Sethi to win the Republican nomination to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Trump, who first endorsed Hagerty last year, reminded voters in a July 31 tweet of his “Complete and Total Endorsement!” and called Hagerty an “outstanding man and one of the best Ambassadors ever (Japan).” 

Trump also did a phone call for Hagerty supporters on Wednesday in which he praised the candidate’s work as ambassador and his commitment to conservative values. 

“Go out and vote for Bill Hagerty,” Trump said toward the end of the call. “He’s going to do an exceptional job.”

Hagerty was leading Sethi 52 percent to 38 percent Thursday when The Associated Press called the race at 8:09 p.m. Central time.

About 10 minutes after the race was called, Trump walked over to reporters on the tarmac where he had just landed in New Jersey to relay the news. “Hagerty won the race in Tennessee. They just announced,” the president said, according to a White House pool report.

The Democratic primary saw an upset by environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw, who had 36 percent of the vote in the five-person field when the AP called the race just before 9 p.m. Central time. Iraq veteran James Mackler, who had been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was in third place.

Mackler had raised $2.1 million and spent $1.5 million through July 17. Bradshaw did not file a second-quarter fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission, but reported raising $8,400 through March 31.

On the House side, longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper won the party nod for the Nashville-area 5th District, beating back progressive challenger and former public defender Keeda Haynes, a Black woman who became a lawyer after being incarcerated for a crime she says she did not commit.

Cooper was leading with 55 percent to Haynes’ 42 percent, with 64 percent of precincts reporting when the AP called the race at 8:23 p.m. Central time.

A member of the Armed Services Committee who in 2018 was one of the 10 Democrats most likely to break with his party on votes, Cooper had raised $692,000 to Haynes’ $101,000, and had nearly all of it — $614,000 — on July 17. Unlike other districts where Democratic incumbents were ousted by more progressive challengers, it did not appear that outside groups put any money into the race.

The GOP Senate primary drew millions of dollars, high-profile endorsements and, in recent weeks, attack ads.

Hagerty was backed by 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.

The open race attracted 15 candidates, but polls in early July showed Hagerty and Sethi at the top of the heap.

Hagerty raised $12.3 million (including $6.5 million in personal loans) and spent $9.7 million through July 15. Sethi raised $4.6 million, including $1.9 million in personal loans, and had 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. He was at 3 percent when the race was called.

The primary also saw another $4.2 million spent by outside groups, with $1.7 million going to support Hagerty and $2.5 million on Sethi’s behalf.

Hagerty will be the solid favorite in November in a state Trump carried by 26 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.