The Tennessee Senate Race

Todd Womack

With the announced retirement of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander in January of 2021, Tennessee will have a second new senator representing the state in as many election cycles. This past week, a number of developments occurred that will significantly shape the race, but the final field is still not set. So far, Manny Sethi, a highly respected Vanderbilt trauma surgeon and founder of Healthy Tennessee, is the only confirmed Republican candidate running, along with Democrat and drone law specialist, James Mackler, who is becoming a perennial “dip-his-toe-in-the water” Senate candidate.

Early in the week, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who has been mulling getting into the race for the past several months, announced that he will not be a candidate, explaining that after much reflection and prayer he did not believe serving in the Senate was his calling. Governor Haslam had essentially frozen the race as he contemplated a run and because of his strong approval numbers, successful tenure as governor, and proven ability to raise money and, if necessary, self-fund, would have been the prohibitive favorite. Hours after Haslam’s announcement, Congressman Mark Green, a new member of Congress representing the 7th congressional district, who many believed would throw his hat into the ring, said he planned to stay put and would be running for his House seat in 2020. That same day, Congressman David Kustoff, a former U.S. Attorney who represents Tennessee’s 8th congressional district indicated that he has received a lot of encouragement to look at getting into the race and that he is considering doing so.

Then on Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump tweeted this:

Tennessee loving Bill Hagerty, who was my Tennessee Victoy Chair and is now the very outstanding Ambassador to Japan, will be running for the U.S. Senate. He is strong on crime, borders & our 2nd A. Loves our Military & our Vets. Has my Complete & Total Endorsement!

With that tweet, businessman and former Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Ambassador Bill Hagerty, became a top-tier candidate before even making his candidacy official. Because of Hatch Act regulations, Hagerty, did not immediately comment on the race, but in a state where President Trump’s approval ratings among Republicans are incredibly strong, Hagerty’s chances of being the Republican nominee if he announces became very high with just one tweet.

With more than a year to go until the primary, there is still a lot of water to go under the bridge and the field is far from set — but the contours of the race certainly began to crystallize last week.

Womack is the president and CEO of Bridge Public Affairs and former chief of staff and staff director for U.S. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has served in senior leadership on a number of successful statewide campaigns, including Corker’s victory in 2006, which distinguished him as the only Republican elected to the U.S. Senate that year. Womack later managed the team that led to Corker’s 2012 reelection with nearly 65 percent of the vote.