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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 AlexanderThe Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (R) between a Trump-backed Republican and a rival supported by Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Seth Rogen says he's not in a feud with 'fascist' Ted Cruz, whose 'words caused people to die' MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP lawmaker calls for Wuhan probe to 'prevent the next pandemic' All congressional Democrats say they have been vaccinated: CNN Fauci on Rand Paul: 'I just don't understand what the problem is with him' MORE (R-Ky.) appears to be headed to the wire on Thursday. 

Bill Hagerty, whom President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' 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 RomneyRomney: Capitol riot was 'an insurrection against the Constitution' Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Top border officials defend Biden policies 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 critics push new direction for GOP Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE, Fox News Channel host Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityMcCarthy dings Biden after meeting: Doesn't have 'energy of Donald Trump' Jenner says she didn't vote in 2020: 'I just couldn't get excited about it' White House says Biden won't 'underestimate Trump' if he runs in 2024 MORE, and Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnHillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan The Memo: Trump's critics face wrath of GOP base MORE (R-Tenn.) and Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Opposition to refugees echoes one of America's most shameful moments White House defends CDC outreach to teachers union 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 LevinBoehner on Bachmann: Right-wing media made 'people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars' Boehner says he called Hannity 'a nut' during tense 2015 phone call Worst person in America contest? 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 FauciSchools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning Fauci: Coronavirus pandemic showed 'undeniable effects of racism in our society' Fauci: Vaccinated people become 'dead ends' for the 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.”