NASHVILLE - When the Conservative Political Action Conference rolled into Memphis this week, Tennessee Republican U.S. Senate hopeful and former ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty nailed a prime speaking spot before about 200 GOP activists as he defended his former boss, President Donald Trump.
Accusing congressional Democrats of trying to "repeal the result of the 2016 election by taking this president down" through impeachment, Hagerty, a former investment firm manager and one-time Tennessee economic development commissioner, said efforts to combat "liberal socialists here in America are what called me back."
"We absolutely need to do better and we need strong leadership for that," added Hagerty, who has been endorsed by Trump, during his nearly 21-minute limelight appearance with American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp.
Also attending Tuesday's Memphis event was Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi, who is vying with Hagerty in Republicans' 2020 Senate primary. Both men hope to become the Tennessee GOP's nominee to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is retiring next year.
Sethi also got his moment to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But it was at the tail end of the conference as one of three people on a panel where a moderator focused on "the true cost of socialized medicine," as well as how to hold down health care costs.
By the time Sethi spoke, the audience had dwindled down to several dozen as he pitched the need for "a free market-based health insurance plan."
"That's OK," Sethi said in a Times Free Press interview of his placement on the program. "It's the machine, that's OK."
He also said that when it comes to health care, "the conservative movement has totally failed us." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Mitt Romney "who have endorsed my opponent, by the way - they said when we get a Republican majority we'll repeal and replace Obamacare. Didn't do it, they betrayed us."
Hagerty formerly served as national finance chairman for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Hagerty served as Trump Victory Chair for Tennessee. After Trump's nomination, Hagerty became director of appointments for Trump's presidential transition team. As president, Trump nominated Hagerty for ambassador to Japan, and he was easily confirmed by the Senate.
After Alexander announced he would not seek reelection in January, former Gov. Bill Haslam waited months before saying he wouldn't run, which some Republicans saw as an effort to help Hagerty, Haslam's former economic development commissioner. Haslam has since contributed to Hagerty.
Prior to Hagerty's formal announcement, Trump tweeted his ambassador would run for Senate and have his full support.
After his speech on Tuesday, Hagerty charged in an interview House Democrats are on "a witch hunt" when it comes to impeachment proceedings, which became a formal process Thursday in a partisan vote.
Hagerty also said, "I've been very frustrated with Republicans like Mitt Romney who have fallen prey to the impeachment discussion. I think it's imperative that Republicans see this for what it is and stand firm behind the president. I can assure you that I will if I become the next U.S. senator from Tennessee."
As for Trump's support, Hagerty said his wife told him after he won the president's "total and complete'' endorsement that "you've done a great job working with the president over the years and building his trust and confidence that you'd be a great U.S. senator. But now your job is to get home and spend time with the people of Tennessee and let them get to know who you are and earn their confidence and support.''
"And so that's my job," Hagerty said.
Sethi predicted that when Trump takes a closer look, he is "going to see that his grassroots supporters in Tennessee - the same people who got him elected - you know what, they're on our team. He's going to see that just like him I'm the Christian conservative outsider in the race. And I think he's going to feel the mood that people no longer want a career, establishment politician. Which is what my opponent is."
Neither Hagerty nor Sethi have sought public office before.
Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said "if you're Bill Hagerty, I don't think you could be in a better position to win the race. You got a Trump background and you got Donald Trump tweeting for you."
Moreover, Syler said, Hagerty also has backing from "establishment Republicans. So I think he certainly starts in a very, very good place." Staying close to the president worked for now-U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn in 2018, he added.
"He's really following the Marsha Blackburn model. Go as far right as you can in the primary, protect your right flank, embrace the president and his policies," Syler observed.
Hagerty has hired veteran GOP strategist Ward Baker of Nashville as his top consultant. Baker, who headed the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2016, served in a similar role for Blackburn's 2018 effort against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Sethi, meanwhile, has hired two veteran strategists from Tennessee. One of the strategists is former Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney of Lookout Mountain.
Another veteran GOP strategist, who isn't involved with either Hagerty or Sethi's campaign, said having support from both Trump and the "sort of traditional Republican donor crowd" puts Hagerty "particularly in good position. Trump right now is the golden ticket."
While some see parallels between Gov. Bill Lee and Sethi's strategy, the GOP strategist noted that Lee emerged as victor in a bitter, four-person GOP primary with four millionaires. Two top candidates - U.S. Rep. Diane Black and former state economic commissioner Randy Boyd - bludgeoned each other in a fusilade of negative attacks. Lee, who also was attacked, didn't return fire and his support rose.
"To follow the Lee model, you need two people with money beating the hell out of each other," the strategist said, adding the same multi-candidate dynamic is not in play in the Senate primary.
Lee, who has taken no position in the Senate race, was among speakers at the CPAC conference. Asked what advice he'd give the candidates, the governor offered this: "I would just say be yourself and be genuine and tell people what's really in your heart and why it is you're serving. And I think people connect with that message in a way that's attractive."
Democratic candidates are James Mackler, an attorney and Iraq War veteran, environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw of Memphis and Nashville resident Gary Davis.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.