NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s endorsement clout will get another test in the Aug. 6 open Republican U.S. Senate primary in Tennessee.
Bill Hagerty, Trump’s former ambassador to Japan, has the president’s endorsement in a race against Manny Sethi, a Nashville trauma surgeon who doesn’t disagree with Trump on a whole lot, either — other than his preference of candidate.
So far, the contest for the GOP nomination has revolved around who would be a more fitting right-hand man for Trump in Washington.
Last July, Trump let Tennessee voters know he would back Hagerty for the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, months before Hagerty declared himself a candidate. Sethi had already been running for about a month when Trump’s tweet turned the contest upside down.
Fast forward a full year — amid a pandemic that took in-person campaign events off the table for a couple months — and the race is close enough that attacks are flying back and forth in TV ads. Even Trump has said Hagerty has a “real primary.”
Sethi has rebutted Hagerty’s constant reminders of the Trump endorsement by labeling him a Washington establishment candidate and often pointing to his previous ties to Mitt Romney. The Utah senator, once the GOP’s standard bearer as the 2016 presidential nominee, has lately become a political burden within the party as the lone Republican senator who voted to impeach Trump.
Hagerty, meanwhile, has deployed his own political purity tests of Sethi, pointing to his previous medical affiliations and a select few of his political donations to claim he’s not as firmly conservative or against the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — as he says on the campaign trail.
At the race’s outset, a Trump rally in Tennessee for Hagerty was all but guaranteed. With the coronavirus outbreak swelling and early voting already underway, time is running short for an in-person Trump appearance, or even a debate between the two main candidates.
Before the outbreak, Donald Trump Jr. came to Tennessee in January to boost Hagerty. Since then, Hagerty has had tele-town halls with the president, Kellyanne Conway, Lara Trump, Larry Kudlow and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who is headlining a Hagerty event this week.
“I’ve known Bill for a long time. He was one of my earliest supporters,” Trump said during the tele-town hall last week. “He worked on my campaign in 2016 and my transition after we won. He’s been so great in so many ways. We need to send great conservative voices out there.”
But Trump hasn’t been on the attack against Sethi, who recalled visiting the White House three years ago through his Healthy Tennessee nonprofit. Trump, Sethi said, couldn’t remember his name and called him “Tennessee.”
Last week, Sethi brought in Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to argue that Trump acted too quickly and simply picked wrong.
“The night that Manny wins — I talk to the president every week — I will call the president, and I promise you the president will call Manny and congratulate him the next day,” he said.
Additionally, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas endorsed Sethi on Wednesday.
The two candidates are against requiring masks in public, and neither campaign has insisted on that precaution for COVID-19 at campaign events. Hundreds of attendees showed up at Sethi’s covered outdoor event with Paul, and those two headliners were not among the few wearing masks. Both Sethi and Hagerty have cozied up to unmasked supporters for photos at events indoors and outdoors.
On the issues, the two hopefuls have stuck to conservative staples — pro-gun, anti-abortion, tough on China and immigration — and have blasted the protests after George Floyd’s death as a destructive “liberal mob.”
They’ve disagreed publicly on little policy-wise. The biggest contrast was Hagerty’s support for sending the U.S. military to control domestic riots, and Sethi’s opposition and preference to use the National Guard.
The Tennessee candidates have seen no downside to echoing Trump, since he won the state handily in 2016 and Republicans have held both Tennessee Senate seats since 1994. Hagerty has even floated putting Trump on Mount Rushmore.
Hagerty has proposed imprisoning people who burn flags or destroy monuments. The Nashville businessman resigned from the board of a company after it posted a positive message about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sethi has dared anyone to call him racist in multiple ads, since his parents immigrated from India legally and he touts conservative views on America’s borders.
“Church with too many people is a crime. Thousands of people protesting is not?” Sethi says in one ad. “Got a problem with any of that? You’re a racist. And you want to kill grandma.”
Among the 15 Republicans who qualified for the contest, Hagerty has spent $6.4 million through June and Sethi has spent $3.5 million. Perennial self-funding GOP candidate George Flinn has spent $4.4 million.
Five Democrats have qualified for that party’s primary. The only one with a significant fundraising haul is Nashville attorney and former Army helicopter pilot James Mackler.
Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.
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