Bill Hagerty, President Donald Trump's former ambassador to Japan, won the contentious Tennessee primary Thursday, securing the party's nomination in the safe red state.
Hagerty had 52 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for physician Manny Sethi, when The Associated Press called the race.
Hagerty, a former private-equity executive who became President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Japan, had been the clear favorite in the primary after earning Trump’s early support. But Sethi ran an insurgent bid that caught fire over the summer and turned a sleepy race into a competitive one.
The primary was one of the last and biggest tests of Trump’s sway over Republican voters this year. The president went all in to boost Hagerty from the very beginning of his campaign — he endorsed Hagerty before he had even left Japan to enter the race, and stayed in touch as the race developed. Trump hosted two telephone calls with Hagerty supporters in the closing weeks of the race to encourage his base to turn out.
“He’s a Trump conservative. He’s a friend of mine. He’s a great guy,” Trump said Wednesday night, on the eve of the primary. The candidates are running to replace Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring.
Meanwhile, while Hagerty cruised to victory, the Democratic primary featured a massive upset. Marquita Bradshaw, an environmentalist and activist from Memphis, defeated James Mackler, an Army veteran endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democrats do not expect to seriously contest Tennessee in the fall, and the DSCC was not actively involved in the primary after endorsing him in January.
Mackler's defeat represents the first primary defeat for a DSCC-backed candidate in a decade. He raised $2.1 million for his bid through mid-July and spent $1.5 million. Bradshaw does not appear to have filed an FEC report since April, when she reported that she had raised $13,000 for the election to that point, and had spent $8,900.
Hagerty fully embraced Trump and made that support central to his campaign. But Sethi ran provocative TV ads attacking liberals over Black Lives Matter and the lockdowns during the coronavirus surge earlier this year, aiming to appeal to the right-wing voters that make up Trump’s base. He often included his support for Trump in his campaign ads, even as the president endorsed against him.
Those ads helped boost his campaign, which continued to host large events into the summer despite the pandemic, and gave him a shot of adrenaline to make the race closer than initially expected.
The back-and-forth got increasingly nasty in the closing stretch. Hagerty ran TV ads bashing Sethi over a small donation to a Democratic candidate more than a decade ago. He also consistently mispronounced Sethi’s name on the campaign trail and in ads.
Sethi, meanwhile, repeatedly attacked Hagerty over his association with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a former Hagerty business associate. Sethi has implied that Romney endorsed Hagerty, though the Utah senator has not weighed in on the race.
Hagerty repeatedly denounced Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, on the campaign trail. The New York Times reported that Romney’s PAC contributed to Hagerty, whose campaign cashed the check but then returned it in full and did not include it on FEC reports.
The race drew in and divided national Republicans, in particular many who have potential 2024 presidential ambitions. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley endorsed Hagerty, along with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence; Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) endorsed Sethi.
Republicans will be heavily favored to retain the seat in November: No Democrat has won a Senate election in Tennessee since Al Gore in 1990.
Meanwhile, in East Tennessee, GOP voters chose pharmacist Diana Harshbarger to replace retiring Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), whose district is solidly Republican. Harshbarger defeated 15 other Republicans for the nomination.