Hagerty largely ignored Sethi most of the race — seemingly confident of his lead which his internal polls had at 17 points — until earlier this month, when he abruptly went on the offensive. His recent campaign speeches and interviews are chock-full of attack lines. His campaign has dubiously accused Sethi of donating money to a group “bankrolling these rioters” in an ad with a wounded veteran telling voters that Sethi can’t be trusted to defend the flag.
And Hagerty has been repeatedly mispronouncing Sethi’s name as “Set-ee” instead of “Seth-ee” a year into the race, even in response to reporter questions with the correct pronunciation. Hagerty told POLITICO it was inadvertent, and he didn’t know which pronunciation Sethi, the son of Indian immigrants, prefers.
“Bill Hagerty is Thurston Howell III without the charm,” said Jordan Gehrke, Sethi’s senior strategist, comparing Hagerty to the out-of-touch millionaire in the ’70s-era sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” “He’s desperate. He should be.”
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), who endorsed Hagerty, shot back that Sethi’s recent attacks were “fiction. I think it’s despair,” he said.
The outcome almost certainly has no bearing on the makeup of the Senate, with Republicans strongly favored to retain the seat in November. But the battle is a window into the changing nature of the Republican Party, in which economic populism is in vogue, and race and identity have been thrust to the fore.
Many ambitious Republicans eager to position themselves as future leaders of the party have picked sides. Last week, Cruz endorsed Sethi, joining Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Two other 2024 presidential prospects, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have lined up behind Hagerty, with Cotton’s super PAC set to make its first 2020 expenditure to attack Sethi.
The brawl between the two candidates escalated when Sethi went after Hagerty over his support of Romney in 2008 and 2012, branding him as a “Mitt Romney Republican” — scarlet letters in Trump’s GOP.
Since then, the race has devolved into a gnarly thicket of misleading attacks: Sethi’s campaign is running an ad that claims Hagerty is endorsed by Mitt Romney, even though the Utah senator hasn’t endorsed and Hagerty has denounced him aggressively on the trail. Hagerty’s team has accused Sethi of donating money to a group supporting the rioters, a distortion of a $ 50 contribution in 2008 Sethi made to a Democratic congressional candidate in Virginia that was processed by ActBlue, a party-aligned payment platform that has been used recently by Black Lives Matter-linked groups and other protestors.
Hagerty, a former private equity executive and Jeb Bush delegate, was the sort of business-first conservative who donated to both Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, mirroring some of Trump’s political donating habits before his presidential run. But in 2020, he has run on a message tailored for the Trump era, telling POLITICO that Black Lives Matter is an “anti-Semitic” and “Marxist” organization that’s “calling for the removal of the images of Jesus Christ.” In a recent direct-to-camera ad, Hagerty declared: “Burn our flag or destroy a monument, you go to prison.” He’s leaning heavily on Trump’s endorsement, which came in a presidential tweet.
“I think the very first issue is supporting President Trump,” Hagerty said. “That’s the big issue here in Tennessee. Folks in Tennessee want a candidate that’s going to support — they want a senator that’s going to support President Trump and his agenda.”
Sethi, a physician and political newcomer, has used $ 1.9 million of his own wealth to amplify his message bashing the economic lockdowns and racial justice protests. “Church with too many people is a crime. Thousands of people protesting is not,” went one viral ad. “You got a problem with any of that? You’re a racist, and you want to kill Grandma.”
Hagerty has fought back with his own barrage of ads, taking loans of at least $ 6.5 million to fund his campaign, according to FEC records.
They have both continued in-person campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic even as many campaigns have retreated. Masks are provided and encouraged but not required at Sethi’s events, many of which were packed indoors this past weekend. “We try to encourage social distancing — but when your crowds are growing and growing, it becomes more challenging,” Sethi told POLITICO.
Sethi has drawn attention for his unapologetic and provocative TV ads that try to ride a conservative backlash to the recent Black Lives Matter protests. One accused liberals of not really caring about Black lives because Planned Parenthood places clinics near minority communities, and asking voters if they are sick of liberals saying “watching American cities get ripped apart is a chance for you to examine your privilege.”
While Hagerty has brandished his Trump endorsement, Sethi has pounded him for his links to Romney. Hagerty worked with Romney in private equity and served on both of his presidential campaigns, including as national finance chair in 2008. He defends his 2012 work as an effort to defeat Barack Obama, whom he calls the “worst president” of his lifetime, but condemns the Utah senator’s recent politics.
Hagerty’s response suggests Romney, who preceded Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee, has now become toxic in Republican primary politics. Hagerty frequently bashes him on the trail and told POLITICO that Romney’s disagreements with Trump negatively impacted his own job as ambassador. Unprompted, he also called Romney “irresponsible” for marching with Black Lives Matter protesters recently.
Sethi was unconvinced.
“I just think someone like that really has no place in the Republican Party anymore, and Bill Hagerty represents that,” said Sethi. “Now he’s trying to hide it.”
Romney hasn’t officially endorsed Hagerty or weighed in on his behalf, other than saying he would “love it” if Hagerty entered the race last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Jack Johnson, the GOP leader in the state Senate who endorsed Hagerty, said if anyone would be concerned about his past relationship with Romney, it would be Trump himself.
“I think he’s convinced that any past support or relationship with Mitt Romney is water under the bridge and not really relevant right now because he’s obviously 100 percent supporting President Trump, and vice versa,” Johnson said.
Tom Ingram, a former Alexander chief of staff, said that even with declining national approval ratings, Tennessee is “still a Trump — all caps, underlined, italicized — state, and Romney is a frontline Trump enemy.” In large part because of the president’s endorsement, Ingram added that “I think it would be a pretty stunning upset if Hagerty lost.”
Hagerty has support from more than a dozen senators and has long-held relationships with Tennessee Republican officials stretching back years, both before and after he served as a top adviser to former Gov. Bill Haslam. Dozens of current and former members of the state legislature endorsed him alongside the president and his allies. Hagerty also rolled out endorsements from Vice President Mike Pence and Fox News host Sean Hannity in the closing stretch of the race.
As with most other Republican primaries across the country this year, support for — and from — Trump has been central, although a few of his endorsed candidates have lost in recent primaries.
Fleischmann, who has endorsed Hagerty, said Trump’s backing was “golden,” and that the president discussed Hagerty and the race with him multiple times last year. Trump keeps regular contact with Hagerty: They spoke by phone last week, and the president held a tele-conference with Hagerty the week before to rally supporters ahead of early voting. “You’ve got a real primary here, and the other side is spending a lot of money. But Bill is somebody that will never, ever let you down,” Trump said, adding that Hagerty “was one of my earliest supporters,” despite his support for other primary candidates in 2016.
Hagerty’s campaign publicly shrugged off the challenge at first — from Sethi and another self-funder, perennial candidate George Flinn — and released an internal poll earlier this month showing them up 17 points. But last week, the Hagerty campaign abruptly shifted gears and began pounding Sethi as “Massachusetts Manny” and trying to tie him to Obama because he applied for a nonpartisan White House fellowship in 2009.
On mispronouncing Sethi’s last name on the stump, Hagerty says the slight is unintentional.
“I’m just not sure what his preferred pronunciation is, but there’s nothing underlying it,” Hagerty said.
“How many years of higher education at Vanderbilt does it take to properly pronounce a last name?,” Jeri Thompson, the wife of the late Tennessee senator Fred Thompson who has endorsed Sethi, shot back. “For shame, Ambassador Hagerty.”
Asked if he thought Hagerty was deliberately mispronouncing his name to make him sound more foreign, Sethi said, “I think that [voters] can make that judgment for themselves.”
The attacks have trickled down to the staff level. Hagerty’s campaign has bought Facebook ads hitting Sethi’s campaign manager and top consultant for calling Trump a “Manchurian candidate” and a “short-fingered vulgarian” during the 2016 Republican primary. “Primaries are messy,” said Chris Devaney, Sethi’s campaign chairman. “Fact is, Manny supported President Trump in the primary, while Hagerty was supporting Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.”
The winner of the primary will likely face Democrat James Mackler, an Army veteran and attorney, in the general election. Like many Democrats, Mackler hit both GOP candidates for holding events during the Covid-19 outbreak.
“Real leaders put the health and welfare of those they are elected to serve ahead of their own self-interest,” he said.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.