Monday, September 07, 2020

Race of the Day- Tennessee U.S. Senate

Tennessee U.S. Senate

57 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Open
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Safe Republican

Very few open U.S. Senate seats have contained as many storylines leading up to the nominations via an August primary, only to have the general election be all but an afterthought.

Republicans have dominated in the Volunteer State for much of the last generation and it has been thirty years since a Democrat last won a Senate election. After that last victory, Al Gore would go on to become Vice President and both Senate seats have been Republican since the 1994 elections. Lamar Alexander came to the Senate relatively late in his political life, having been a Governor, Cabinet Secretary, and two time Presidential candidate. The term limit advocate would go on to serve three terms in Washington D.C., much of it in the GOP Leadership. While his voting record was reliably conservative, he was never a favorite of the Tea Party or movement types. "Lamar!" had to endure a difficult primary challenge in his last run.

It did not come as huge surprise when Alexander announced at the end of 2018 that he would not seek another term. That year had seen his fellow Senator, Bob Corker, also a relatively moderate southern Republican, pass up running again, after having had differences with Donald Trump, only to see the seat go to a candidate more beloved on the party's right flank. With Alexander retiring, just about every prominent Republican in the state was mentioned as a possible successor. Establishment types were disappointed when the popular former Governor Bill Haslam declined a run. Others were hoping that retired NFL Quarterback great Peyton Manning would run.

Eventually, no fewer than 15 Republicans filed to run in the primary, although the contest came down to one between an establishment backed candidate (which included an early endorsement from Donald Trump) and an insurgent who claimed to be the true conservative.

Bill Hagerty had long been involved in finance and in Republican politics. His most recent job had been as U.S. Ambassador to Japan under Donald Trump, but he resigned that post to run for the Senate, with Trump's public encouragement. Before his association with Trump though, Hagerty had been one of the establishment types that Trumpists rail against. For example, he was an early supporter and fundraiser for Jeb Bush's 2016 Presidential effort, and four years earlier had been a staunch backer of Mitt Romney. With support and money behind him for this Senate race, Hagerty was considered a strong front-runner.

He would be challenged though by Manny Sethi, a 42 year old orthopedic trauma surgeon and the son of Indian immigrants. His standing as a young surgical field outsider was in some ways reminiscent of how former Senator Bill Frist first came to office in Tennessee. The two men would actually work together on a health policy book and Sethi became more active politically, especially as it related to health care matters.

Needing an opening against Hagerty, Sethi attacked him for his past donations, including to Bush and Romney. He seemed to focus heavily on his opponent's past support of Romney in 2012, as if he somehow thought it would have been better if Hagerty had support Barack Obama's reelection. The efforts to portray Hagerty as a "RINO" started to pay off though, even as he had Trump's open support. Sethi would roll out endorsements from various prominent conservatives himself.  Hagerty insisted he was a Trump supporter through and through and all but rejected his past support of Romney. Interestingly enough, the candidate did not reject support from Jeb Bush. Perhaps that is because Romney voted to convict Trump in an impeachment trial and Bush did not take a public stance. Ultimately Hagerty won, and by a somewhat larger than expected margin of 51-39.

In the meantime, Democrats, always an underdog for this seat, had their own less visible primary process would would wind up yielding one of the larger surprises of the cycle. With all well known party members taking a pass, the nod seemed to go to James Mackler, an attorney who played up his time in the U.S. Army. He had wanted to run for the Senate in 2018, but withdrew in favor of a former Democrat Governor. In making this bid, Mackler was successful in raising a considerable amount of money and was considered all but a shoo-in for the nomination. He would be a hefty underdog against any Republican, but was considered someone who could win crossover votes and be credible for his party.

Without much attention to this fie way primary and without any apparent polling, Mackler was upset. He not only lost, but finished in third place with just 24 percent of the primary vote. In the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement this past summer, and with African-Americans now making up the most significant portion of those left in Tennessee who identify as Democrats, the top two finishers in the primary were both African-American women, a group that had never previously been nominated for statewide office in Tennessee.

Even more so, the winner of the primary was less well-known and less funded than the second place finisher. Victorious with about 36 percent of the vote was Marquita Bradshaw an insurance agent from Memphis who had been an environmental activist. She had barely spent any money on this Senate campaign. In second place, nearly nine points behind was Robin Kimbrough Hayes, an attorney and clergymember from Nashville. The winner Bradshaw seems to be a good deal younger than Hayes. I think it should be recognized, without controversy, that in this very low-key primary, Marquita Bradshaw had a very advantageous first name for the ballot.

The big picture is that any Republican was going to win this seat. After all, Democrats had lost by double digits for the open seat in 2018, when they seemingly had more to their favor in terms of candidates. It is also true that Mackler and for that matter Hayes would also probably be more competitive than Bradshaw is likely to be in a general election. Nonetheless, her impressive primary victory, while being outraised (by the bronze medalist) $2.1 million to less than $10,000 speaks to the political environment and energy among Democrats this year in down-ballot races.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

15 D (6 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup) 
16 R (6 Safe, 4 Likely, 4 Lean, 2 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

50 Democrats (35 holdovers, 6 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup)
46 Republicans (30 holdovers, 6 Safe, 4 Likely, 4 Lean, 2 Tossup)


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