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Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans

Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans
© Getty Images/Courtesy of Manny Sethi Campaign

A nasty GOP primary in Tennessee to replace retiring Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R) between a Trump-backed Republican and a rival supported by Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Ethics complaint filed against Biggs, Cawthorn and Gosar over Capitol riot Hawley, Cruz see approval ratings dip in wake of Capitol riot: poll MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official MORE (R-Ky.) appears to be headed to the wire on Thursday. 

Bill Hagerty, whom President TrumpDonald TrumpNYT: Rep. Perry played role in alleged Trump plan to oust acting AG Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call MORE endorsed, is trying to hold off a challenge from political newcomer Manny Sethi, a trauma surgeon who is surging into the finish with help from Cruz and Paul, Trump’s onetime 2016 rivals.

Both Hagerty and Sethi have embraced Trump as the leader of the Republican Party. They’re both viewed as solid conservatives with compelling backstories who will have no trouble holding the GOP Senate seat in November.

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But Republicans have been floored by the extraordinarily negative turn the election has taken.

Nothing has been off-limits, with the candidates litigating everything from political donations made by their spouses to where they went to school. Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (R-Utah) has emerged as a central villain, and Alexander’s conservative bona fides have been called into question. 

Hagerty at one point appeared to be on a glide path to the nomination after locking down Trump’s support. But Sethi’s outsider campaign has resonated in a state with a fierce independent streak. 

There have not been any recent public polls of the race, and Tennessee Republicans say they don’t know who will come out on top.

“Two months ago, it wasn’t much of a race,” said Chip Saltsman, the former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “Six weeks ago, it became a race, and it looks like a jump ball now heading into Election Day.”

The race has divided Republicans nationally.

Trump announced his endorsement of Hagerty before he’d even officially entered the race. At the time, Hagerty was U.S. ambassador to Japan, and Trump’s endorsement caught the State Department off guard.

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Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has campaigned for Hagerty and has appeared in an ad for him. Hagerty was a senior member of Trump’s presidential transition team.

Vice President Pence, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Can we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves? In calling out Trump, Nikki Haley warns of a more sinister threat MORE, Fox News Channel host Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityMcConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism Almost 7 in 10 oppose Trump pardoning himself: poll Can the GOP break its addiction to show biz? MORE, and Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Colbert asks Republicans 'have you had enough?' in live show after Capitol violence MORE (R-Tenn.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (R-Ark.) are all in Hagerty’s corner.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also endorsed Hagerty, a former private equity executive who is credited with helping turn Tennessee’s economy around as the state’s commissioner for economic development.

Republicans in Tennessee say they’re surprised those endorsements haven’t closed the deal for Hagerty.

Trump is still popular in Tennessee, and many believed his endorsement would be enough to drive Hagerty to victory.

Hagerty has trumpeted the president’s support in nearly every one of his campaign ads. Hagerty’s team wears “Endorsed by Trump” apparel at rallies, and his launch video mentioned Trump nearly a dozen times.

Some Republicans have criticized Hagerty’s campaign for focusing too much on Trump, rather than selling his own accomplishments as a conservative business leader. Sethi, they say, has come off as more personable and relatable in the ad wars.

“The Hagerty campaign didn’t sufficiently establish his positives before they went on an over-the-top assault,” said Tom Ingram, a former senior aide to both Alexander and former Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics Former GOP senator: Republicans cannot let Trump's 'reckless' post-election claims stand Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' MORE (R-Tenn.). “I think Sethi has come across as more authentic and connected to Tennessee.”

Sethi’s support from Cruz and Paul has given his campaign a jolt of grassroots energy. He’s also got support from former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a Tea Party leader, and conservative commentator Mark LevinMark Reed LevinLimbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Prosecutors say man who brought weapons to Capitol carried list of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' Talk radio company orders hosts to stop suggesting election was stolen from Trump MORE.

While Hagerty has Trump’s support, Republicans say that Sethi has benefited by playing the Trump role as an outsider running against the establishment.

“Trump is still very strong in Tennessee ... but people who vote for Trump here are just as much against everybody else as they are for Trump,” Ingram said. “A Trump endorsement doesn’t necessarily mean that Tennesseans will follow suit.”

And Sethi has fully embraced Trump, potentially neutralizing the president’s endorsement.

At a campaign rally this week, Sethi called on Trump to fire Anthony FauciAnthony FauciAstraZeneca vaccine distribution begins in Brazil Biden and UK prime minister discuss NATO, multilateralism during call Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus MORE, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert. Fauci is viewed with deep suspicion among Trump’s base of supporters.

Sethi also described hydroxychloroquine as a “legitimate treatment option” for the coronavirus and says he has a friend whose life was saved because of it. Trump has touted the drug despite some studies that have found it to be ineffective.

The high stakes have led to an onslaught of negative advertising and false attacks between the two campaigns.

The Hagerty campaign ran an ad with a military veteran accusing Sethi of “bankrolling these riots” across the country. The claim is based on a $50 donation Sethi’s wife gave to a friend running for office through the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue.

They’ve accused Sethi, who was a finalist for a nonpartisan fellowship at the White House, of applying for a job in the Obama administration.

An outside group aligned with Paul has run an ad warning that “liberal Lamar Alexander” is working to get “another liberal like Bill Hagerty” into the Senate. An outside group aligned with Cotton in another ad calls Sethi a “fake conservative.”

Sethi has accused Hagerty of making millions off Common Core. Hagerty has accused Sethi of being anti-gun and pro-ObamaCare.

One attack line that has become central to the campaign involves Romney.

The Sethi campaign has called Hagerty “Mitt Romney’s guy” and a friend of the “ruling class.” Hagerty was national finance chairman for Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and has worked with him in private equity.

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Hagerty has sought distance from Romney, calling him a “weak-kneed” member of the Senate.

The Utah senator, who has been a thorn in the side of Trump, is toxic in Tennessee, despite getting 60 percent of the vote there as a presidential candidate in 2012.

“Romney’s Senate adventures have not done well in Tennessee, so he’s really become a liability,” Ingram said.

Both candidates have stampeded to the right, knowing it’s unlikely to harm them in a general election match-up against a Democrat.

Their ads cast them as anti-abortion, pro-gun and hawkish on China.

They’ve sought to capitalize on conservative anger at the protests across the country.

“These are socialists who destroy our churches, burn the flag, take our guns and abort our unborn children,” Sethi says in one campaign ad.

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“Burn our flag or destroy a monument, you go to prison,” Hagerty says in another.

Kent Syler, a veteran political operative in the state and a professor of politics at Middle Tennessee State University, said the strategy for both candidates is to “not let the other get to the right.”

“Republicans have no fear of Democrats here,” Syler said. “They’re going to battle this out in what they see as a winner take all primary.”