It is a tangled tale; let’s try and sort it out. How does the cocktail party caucus retain control of the Republican political machine in the Age of Trump?
- The Republican establishment is determined that the state not elect another conservative like Marsha Blackburn to the U.S. Senate.
- It is doubtful that former Gov. Bill Haslam ever seriously considered running for the U.S. Senate. It is apparent now that his purpose was to keep U.S. Rep. Mark Green out of the race and clear the way for Bill Hagerty.
- President Trump is blasting Mitt Romney as an “ass” because Romney finds Trump’s actions “appalling.” What will Trump do when he finds out that Mitch McConnell got him to endorse Senate candidate Hagerty, who is a Romney friend, business associate and fund-raiser.
It started the last time Lamar Alexander was on the ballot. He lost his home county to a broke, no-name former state legislator who carried 27 counties, including Blount. One wonders how a credible well-funded candidate would have done?
Bob Corker looked at that result, considered that he had been critical of Trump, and he retired. Blackburn not only beat popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen it was by a double-digit margin.
So, Alexander announced that he would also retire. Meanwhile, newly-elected Rep. Green was already campaigning for the Senate seat. Green is to the right of Blackburn and would have been a good bet to win. So, Haslam began his long period of “decision making” on whether he would run for the Senate. It froze the field, dried up donors and forced Green out of the race. Meanwhile, Hagerty, the establishment candidate, had time to wind up his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Haslam delayed announcing his “decision” week after week. When he finally had to declare he wasn’t running they had Trump primed to announce an endorsement of Hagerty to give him a clear field to glide into the seat.
But he doesn’t have a clear field. While Haslam was playing stalking horse, Vanderbilt trauma surgeon Dr. Manny Sethi announced his intention to run. Sethi said he got calls telling him to get out of the race with threats to dry up his money, but he refused to quit. Since the voters are not familiar with either candidate, Sethi sees himself as much of a contender as Hagerty. Hagerty will be running a top-down campaign, Sethi will be running a bottom-up campaign. While Hagerty was being introduced around the Neyland Stadium skyboxes by Haslam Saturday night, Sethi was at a Montgomery County chili supper.
Trump supporters out here in the country didn’t care much for Romney when he was the Republican nominee for president. Given Romney’s “siding with the Democrats” criticizing Trump, they are furious. They are also aware that Hagerty is in the mold of Alexander, Corker and Haslam and is thus “not conservative enough.” Corker, Alexander and Haslam did not have the stomach to face the voters again in a statewide race. Can the lesser-known Hagerty pull it off?
Hagerty has a Trump endorsement and that helps. But Trump supporters know how that game is played. Trump may get their vote, but his picks are another story. In the last election 36 candidates that Trump endorsed lost.
Hagerty is an experienced fund-raiser. He has raised money for John McCain, Romney and Trump. So, it is likely he will have all the money he needs. He will likely get donor lists from Haslam and Alexander. (It could be the same list.) The establishment Republicans who are not Green or Blackburn fans will be opening their wallets. But will Hagerty be attending those chili suppers and Lincoln Day dinners in Mountain City and other such remote locations?
Sethi doesn’t have to have as much money as Hagerty, he just has to have enough. One unknown in the race is Sethi’s heritage. His parents are Indian immigrants who have practiced medicine in rural Coffee County, where Dr. Manny grew up. So, Dr. Manny speaks rural Tennessee.
A key to the race may be whether Trump wants to come to Tennessee and rally for Hagerty. It isn’t likely Romney will be getting an invitation.
For now, the rallying cry is Manny Against the Machine.
Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.