President Trump likes to boast that his endorsement in Republican primaries is a ticket to victory. It’s true that Trump has clout. Relentless White House attacks on Jeff Sessions, his former attorney general, doomed the Sessions comeback bid for his old Alabama Senate seat.
Trump’s popularity with his base is a major reason why pundits made Bill Hagerty, Trump’s former ambassador to Japan, the favorite to become Tennessee’s next senator. Until recently, Hagerty had parlayed Trump’s endorsement into a big fundraising and polling advantage over Dr. Manny Sethi, a Nashville trauma surgeon and conservative activist.
But Trump’s touch isn’t always golden. In just the last month, in House primaries, two GOP candidates backed by Trump in neighboring North Carolina and Kentucky went down to defeat at the hands of upstart conservative challengers (one of whom has described himself as a Trump supporter).
In addition, 33-year-old Lauren Boebert defeated five-term GOP Congressman Scott Tipton in Colorado last month despite Tipton’s having the Trump stamp of approval. Her secret? She convinced conservatives she was more energetic and more likely to join Trump in draining the Washington swamp than the establishment Tipton had been.
The same phenomenon may be happening in the race to decide who will replace retiring GOP senator Lamar Alexander in Tennessee. Republicans are favored to keep the seat since no Democrat has won a Senate race in Tennessee for 30 years.
As the Nashville Tennessean reports, a new Trafalgar Group poll shows a tight race, with Hagerty at 42 percent and Sethi at 39 percent. The Tennessean says those are “numbers that would indicate Sethi has significantly closed the gap after months of trailing by double digits.” Other polls confirm the Trafalgar Group’s trend line.
Early voting in Tennessee began Friday, so Sethi may be surging at just the right moment.
That may explain why Hagerty just released a new ad featuring a paraplegic Afghan and Iraq War veteran named Joseph James who says, “Sethi has donated to the organization that has bankrolled these rioters, aiding liberal extremists.” The ad vaguely references a $50 donation Sethi made through the liberal fundraising website ActBlue to a family friend running for Congress. Somehow, this shows Sethi had “bankrolled” rioters.
Sethi has responded with his own ad spotlighting Hagerty’s political contributions to Democrats and moderate Republicans. “Why is the establishment attacking a nice guy like me?” Sethi asks. “Well, folks are finding out that Bill Hagerty’s endorsed by Mitt Romney, donated to Al Gore, made millions off CommonCore, tries to get Tennessee to do trade deals with China.”
In fact, Hagerty did give $1,000 to Gore, a Tennessee native, when he ran for president in 2000. But he hasn’t been endorsed by Romney, although the Utah senator did say last year that he would “love it” if Hagerty jumped into the Senate race. Hagerty did give $50,000 directly to Romney for his 2012 presidential race. But after Romney voted to impeach Trump last January, Hagerty promptly declared that Romney has become “indistinguishable from Barack Obama.”
Obama may have left office in 2017, but he does play a big role in the Tennessee race. A Hagerty radio ad claims that Sethi served on a board of trustees of the Massachusetts Medical Society, which supported Obamacare. Sethi’s campaign notes that he belonged to the group because he went to Harvard Medical School, and he served on its board long before Obama was in office.
The ad also notes that in 2009 Sethi applied for a White House fellowship when Obama was president. The program is nonpartisan. Sethi was ultimately named a finalist but never went to Washington. “Massachusetts Manny is a liberal elitist,” the Hagerty ad says.
I interviewed the 42-year-old Sethi after he spoke to a group of New York conservatives earlier this year. He laughed off the attacks on him.
“I have always been opposed to more government control over health care. I founded Healthy Tennessee, a nonprofit that promotes preventive health care and private-sector solutions,” he told me.
Sethi also said he wouldn’t be surprised if he was somehow attacked on immigration issues. He is the son of two legal immigrants from India, and after finishing at Harvard, he came back to the rural Tennessee county he grew up in to practice medicine. “I fully support cracking down on those who break the law and come illegally,” he told me. “I want to end chain migration and return to a merit-based immigration system.”
In the end, the race may come down to which candidate projects the greatest authenticity with conservatives. Hagerty, who initially backed Jeb Bush for president in 2016, swung over to Trump and has the president’s confidence.
But Sethi appears to be sweeping most of the conservative bench. Radio talk-show host Mark Levin endorsed Sethi by saying: “I have kids who live in Tennessee. If I lived there, I would be voting for him. His opponent is tied so closely to Romney, that if he gets into the Senate, you know damn well what will happen.”
Sethi has also been endorsed by Senator Rand Paul of neighboring Kentucky as well as by former Tennessee congressmen Zach Wamp, Ed Bryant, and John Duncan Jr.
“Tennessee has sent a lot of moderate Republicans to Congress in the last 50 years,” a Tennessee political analyst who has endorsed neither candidate told me. “But that’s been changing as the state and Republican Party here changes. Manny Sethi isn’t the kind of outsider candidate who normally runs in Tennessee, but they said the same thing about Nikki Haley in South Carolina, and look where she is today.”