By Jim Ellis
July 23, 2020 — The open Tennessee Senate race has not gotten much national attention, but we now seem to have a close race brewing in the final days leading up to the state’s Aug. 6 primary. The Volunteer State is the only one to host a Thursday primary.Once most of the state’s well-known politicos took their names out of consideration after three-term incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) announced his retirement at the end of 2018, former US ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty looked to be the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination. These days in Tennessee, becoming the GOP standard bearer is virtually tantamount to winning a general election.
As the candidates make a dash for the political finish line, original long-shot candidate Manny Sethi, a noted Nashville orthopedic surgeon, has become a viable contender. Three separate polls released last week all found the two candidates within two to four points of each other, with Hagerty, armed with President Trump’s endorsement, clinging to a dwindling lead.
Late Tuesday, JMC Analytics & Polling released their new independent Tennessee survey (July 18-19; 600 likely Tennessee Republican primary voters), which projects Hagerty to be holding a 36-32 percent edge over Dr. Sethi. Last week, both the Trafalgar Group (July 6-8; 1,062 likely Tennessee Republican primary voters) and Victory Phones, the latter for the Sethi campaign (June 30-July 1; 800 likely Tennessee Republican primary voters), released survey results.
Trafalgar found Hagerty leading 42-39 percent, while Victory showed a 33-31 percent ballot test tally. Both countered the Hagerty campaign’s Tarrance Group survey (July 28-30; 651 likely Tennessee Republican primary voters) that posted their candidate to a much larger 46-29 percent spread.
With the race intensifying, we are seeing independent expenditure groups aligned with each candidate airing attack ads, suggesting that the polls brandishing the close results are displaying the race’s true standing.
The Hagerty supporters are attacking Dr. Sethi for making a small political contribution in 2008 through the Act Blue conduit website as a sign that he is no conservative. From the Hagerty campaign media buy, the political newcomer is also being attacked for being a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society that endorsed the Obamacare health plan while putting forth a further claim that Dr. Sethi once applied for a White House Fellow position with the Obama Administration.
Dr. Sethi’s allies, through the Conservative Outsider PAC entity, counter with an ad wave tying Hagerty to “Trump opponent” and “Never Trumper” Mitt Romney, pointing out that the former diplomat was even Romney’s national finance chairman for the 2012 presidential campaign. The ad ends saying Dr. Sethi would “stand with President Trump,” while Ambassador Hagerty is a “Romney Republican.”
In all, 31 individuals are candidates for this Senate seat, including 14 other Republicans in addition to Hagerty and Dr. Sethi, six Democrats, and nine Independents. Tennessee has no runoff system, so the first-place finisher in the major party primaries will win the respective nominations for the fall campaign, with all of the Independents advancing into the general election.
Former Shelby County Commissioner and physician George Flinn, a frequent statewide candidate, is also in the race and expected to secure a small but significant portion of the Republican vote. His presence could help Ambassador Hagerty as those voters preferring a non-establishment candidate could split to a degree between the two physicians, Drs. Sethi and Flinn.
Self-financing all of his campaign, Dr. Flinn’s campaign actually has more money than Dr. Sethi’s effort, $4.75 million to $4.17 million. Hagerty is the strongest fundraiser bringing in just under $10.6 million. All of the financial figures are from the June 30 FEC campaign disclosure filings.
For the Democrats, attorney James Mackler is the favorite to emerge as the party nominee. He is a credible candidate and expected to wage a significant campaign in November, but the Tennessee campaign is not likely to become a national Democratic targeted race.