Trump’s Endorsement Clout Tested in Tennessee Senate Primary

Tennessee’s primary Thursday provides the latest test of the potency of President Donald Trump’s endorsement.

Trump went all in to aid Bill Hagerty, his former ambassador to Japan, in the Republican race for the seat of retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R).

“We need him badly in Washington. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump wrote on Twitter July 31, more than a year after the president first publicly backed Hagerty’s Senate bid.

Hagerty, a former private equity executive who was Tennessee’s economic and community development commissioner, faces serious competition from Manny Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon and son of Indian immigrants who also ran on a strongly conservative platform and positioned himself as a pro-Trump political outsider.

Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg
Bill Hagerty, a former ambassador to Japan, is backed by President Donald Trump in the GOP Senate primary in Tennessee.

Sethi criticized Hagerty for helping lead campaign fundraising for Utah Sen. Mitt Romney‘s 2008 presidential campaign. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, became a target of political attacks by Trump and his allies after voting in February to convict the president on an abuse-of-power charge following an impeachment trial.

Sethi’s supporters include Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of Trump’s rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

“And as both men are running as far to the right as they can, each is positioning himself to be a vast departure from not only Alexander — one of the last remaining GOP lawmakers willing to work across the aisle — but also past moderate, pragmatic Tennessee Republican senators like Bob Corker, Fred Thompson, Bill Frist and Howard Baker,” Jessica Taylor, a nonpartisan political analyst and Tennessee native, wrote in the Cook Political Report on Aug. 3.

The winner of the 15-candidate primary will be strongly favored to succeed Alexander in a state Trump won by 26 percentage points in the 2016 election and which last voted Democratic for the Senate in 1990, when Al Gore was re-elected.

The top Democratic candidate is James Mackler, a lawyer and Army veteran.

House Races

1st District (Johnson City, Kingsport; Trump won 77%-20%): In this overwhelmingly Republican swath of northeastern Tennessee, a region that’s been loyal to the GOP since the Civil War, the winner of the 16-candidate Republican primary will be a House member-in-waiting. Rep. Phil Roe (R) isn’t seeking re-election.

The best-funded Republican is Diana Harshbarger, a pharmacist, self-described “Trump Republican” and political outsider who mostly self-financed her campaign. She aired a string of 15-second TV ads late in the campaign attacking at least five of her rivals: state Sen. Rusty Crowe, physician Josh Gapp, former Kingsport mayor John Clark, former Johnson City mayor Steve Darden, and state Rep. Timothy Hill.

Harshbarger’s donors include Value in Electing Women PAC, which advocates for more Republican women in Congress.

Gapp, who also primarily self-financed his campaign, noted he didn’t accept money from political action committees.

Crowe, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, highlighted his military background. He’s the chairman of the Tennessee Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee and received donations from some health-care PACs.

Clark was born in Cuba and fled the Communist island nation with family when he was 2 years old. His donors include the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC and the leadership PAC of Cuban American Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.)

The biggest outside spender in the contest is Club for Growth Action, a conservative super PAC that supports Hill and aired ads attacking Harshbarger as “dishonest” and Crowe for his voting record on tax issues. Hill also is the preferred candidate of the House Freedom Caucus and its chairman, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.)

5th District (Nashville; Hillary Clinton won 57%-38%): Rep. Jim Cooper, a 30-year House veteran and a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats with moderate leanings on fiscal policy, faces two primary challengers including lawyer Keeda Haynes, a supporter of a “Medicare for All: health-care system and the Green New Deal climate-change blueprint and for overhauling criminal justice policies.

Haynes said she became a public defender after being wrongly incarcerated on a marijuana charge in her early 20s. She went to law school after serving almost four years in prison. Haynes received political donations in June from the progressive groups Indivisible Action and Way to Lead PAC and last week from The Collective PAC, which works to build Black political power in Congress. Haynes, who would become the first Black woman to represent Tennessee in Congress, raised $101,000 through July 17 compared with $692,000 for Cooper.

Cooper, who served in the House from 1983 to 1995 and again since 2003, is chairman of the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and also serves on the Budget Committee and the Oversight and Reform Committee. He sides with Democratic leaders on most policy matters, though he’s called for new party leadership and regularly votes against Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for speaker at the start of a new Congress.

In July 2019, Cooper was one of 16 Democrats who voted against a two-year accord that raised spending caps and suspended the federal debt limit. He’s introduced bills that would implement independent redistricting commissions and protect voting rights and the independence of inspectors general.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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