Previewing Tennessee’s U.S. Senate Republican primary

Fifteen candidates are running in the Republican Party primary for U.S. Senate in Tennessee on August 6, 2020. Incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), first elected in 2002, is not running for re-election. Two candidates—Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi—lead in media attention, noteworthy primary endorsements, advertisement activity, and campaign spending.

CNN‘s Alex Rogers and Manu Raju wrote that the primary “resembles the political battles of the past, with libertarian and tea party-aligned conservatives taking on party leaders and the GOP establishment.”

Hagerty received endorsements from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and U.S. President Donald Trump (R), whose administration he previously served in as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Sethi, an orthopedic surgeon, received endorsements from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund and former president of the Heritage Foundation.

Both candidates have aired campaign ads criticizing the other’s previous political donations and questioning their conservatism.

Hagerty released an ad saying Sethi “refused to donate a dollar to Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton, but [he] did give money to liberal ActBlue helping Nancy Pelosi defeat Republicans,” referring to a $50 donation made by Sethi to ActBlue in 2008.

In a responding ad, Sethi’s wife, Maya, said she made the donation at the request of a friend. She continued, saying, “Bill Hagerty’s attacking me to hurt my husband, but Hagerty gave [Mitt] Romney and Al Gore over $100,000.” According to FEC reports, Hagerty donated $1,000 to Gore (D) in 2000 and $80,000 to Romney (R) between 2007 and 2012. He served as the national finance chairman for Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

According to pre-primary campaign finance reports, Hagerty raised $12.3 million, the second-highest total among all non-incumbent Republicans in 2020 U.S. Senate primaries. He reported $2.7 million cash on hand. Sethi raised $4.6 million and had $386,000 on hand.

Three race forecasters rate the general election as Safe/Solid Republican. In the three preceding senatorial elections, Republican general election candidates received at least 54% of the vote. Before 2020, the most recent time Tennessee had elected a Democratic U.S. Senator was 1990 when Al Gore (D) defeated William R. Hawkins (R).