In a Republican Senate primary in which both candidates played a competitive game of “I’m crazier than you,” an expected barn-burner finish was anticlimactic today, as wealthy businessman Bill Hagerty dispatched wealthy physician Manny Sethi for the GOP nomination to succeed the retiring Lamar Alexander.
Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, was endorsed early in the race by President Trump (and later by the other Tennessee senator, Marsha Blackburn, along with Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, and Mitch McConnell). Sethi came on strong toward the end, with attacks on Hagerty as a RINO squish who played a prominent role in the 2008 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney; he was backed by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and played the outsider-ideologue role, even though neither candidate had ever run for office. Hagerty has attacked Sethi for a Yankee background (calling him “Massachusetts Manny”) and for a tiny ActBlue donation years ago. Sethi emphasized in his ads that he was the son of legal immigrants (both physicians as well) from India. As Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor observed, the candidates both dove off the deep-right end as though they couldn’t control themselves:
As one plugged-in Republican in the state put it, in 2020 “both men are not really running as themselves.” In any other prior political environment, Hagerty probably would be campaigning as more of a business-friendly moderate, while Sethi may not be campaigning as far to the right as he has in denying science-based evidence and medical warnings amid a pandemic. And many in the state don’t believe either is truly comfortable with where the race has been pushed to and how much the battle has escalated.
It’s not a good sign when a well-regarded physician barnstorms during a pandemic without a mask in sight (and his opponent’s events were equally defiant of public-health precautions). But that’s the name of the GOP’s game in places with competitive primaries this year. It’s a far cry from the moderate tradition represented by Alexander and his Senate predecessor and mentor, Howard Baker.
In the end, the two candidates’ ideological benders probably canceled each other out, and Hagerty won by winning handily in most of the state’s rural counties while running even with Sethi in urban areas. Both live not far from Nashville.
The Democratic primary to choose a heavy underdog opponent to Hagerty hasn’t been called yet, but in early returns a bit of an upset is developing, as Memphis-based Black political novice and environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw is leading the field and assumed front-runner James Mackler (who got some name ID with a 2018 Senate race in which he eventually withdrew in favor of party favorite Phil Bredesen) is running third.