National, state Republicans jump into Tennessee U.S. Senate race with endorsements

Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas will campaign for Bill Hagerty for a U.S. Senate seat on Friday. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)
Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas will campaign for Bill Hagerty for a U.S. Senate seat on Friday. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo)

NASHVILLE - Two Republican U.S. senators who are backing different frontrunners in Tennessee's fractious GOP Senate primary are crisscrossing the Volunteer State on Friday to campaign with their chosen candidates.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is expected to join former U.S. ambassador Bill Hagerty and hit stops in Franklin, Clarksville and Jackson.

"Proud to join @realDonaldTrump in endorsing @BillHagertyTN for US Senate," Cotton recently tweeted, calling Hagerty "a strong conservative who will take on China, support law enforcement & stand up for our military."

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is traveling with Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi in Jonesborough, Knoxville and Mt. Juliet.

"We need conservative fighters in the U.S. Senate that will stand up for our values, and that is why I'm endorsing Dr. Manny Sethi for United States Senate," Cruz said.

Cotton and Cruz, both possible 2024 presidential contenders, are hardly alone. In fact, they have joined a virtual army of elected officials choosing up sides in the Aug. 6 Republican primary to determine the Tennessee GOP's Senate nominee in November.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah are lined up behind Hagerty, who has worked for years as the head of a private equity investment firm.

Former Congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, meanwhile, have placed their bets on Sethi.

And then, of course, President Donald Trump endorsed Hagerty, his former ambassador who'd worked in his 2016 general election campaign and served in a top role in the president-elect's transition. The president took part in a tele-conference call for Hagerty last Friday night.

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam hasn't exactly said outright that he is supporting Hagerty, who was his one-time economic and community development commissioner. But if money means anything, he's placed his bet on Hagerty.

In Hamilton County, state Sen. Bo Watson and Reps. Robin Smith, Patsy Hazlewood and Mike Carter have come out for Hagerty. But state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, hasn't and doesn't plan to.

"I have purposefully stayed out of that primary, as I did the governor's race two years ago," Gardenhire said, noting he has already cast his ballot. "I didn't even tell my wife who I voted for."

Asked why he was reticent to say, Gardenhire said, "Well, I want to be able to work with them. I can support either one of them if they're our nominee - wholeheartedly - and feel very comfortable doing that."

So what good do political endorsements actually do in a modern era in which would-be voters can easily be deluged by social media, online news website, cable stations and more?

"If you're the only one getting endorsements it helps," Gardenhire said. "If both sides are getting equal endorsements, it doesn't mean a thing. Very seldom can someone transfer their popularity to someone else. In this case you got like-minded people on both sides of the race. But now they're in a contest to equal out the endorsements."

Dr. John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said endorsements do some things, such as driving news coverage.

But there can also be an element of risk for the person doing the endorsing, Geer said, pointing to Blackburn's endorsement this week of Hagerty.

Blackburn called Hagerty a "true conservative" and said "he will always fight for Tennesseans."

Geer said he believes the contest - 15 Republicans in all are running, including Dr. George Flinn of Memphis who has pumped millions of dollars into his effort - is a "competitive race" betweeen Hagerty and Sethi "and it's not clear who's going to win."

Kent Syler, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University who once ran campaigns for then-U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Murfreesboro Democrat, said the impact of endorsements is often "fairly marginal."

"Trump's different," he said. "President Trump has some pretty loyal followers."

The fight is over succeeding current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is retiring. Alexander hasn't said publicly which candidate he is backing.

Asked where he stands in the contest, Alexander said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Thursday afternoon that "the one thing I do know is there's not a candidate in the country the President has more respect for than Bill Hagerty. He now has the active support of Senator Blackburn, who was just elected.

"Those two developments should be a big help to him in the primary," said Alexander, a three-term senator, former governor and two-time presidential candidate. "My experience has been Tennesseans didn't elect me to tell them how to vote. I think Hagerty's doing very well, and he's certainly well respected in our state."

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee hasn't said much about the contest. Lee's former senior adviser, Chris Devaney of Lookout Mountain, is now heading Sethi's campaign along with another Lee political hand, Jordan Gehrke.

Asked by the Times Free Press about the prominent roles of Devaney and Gehrke on Thursday and whom he was supporting, Lee said, "We have two great candidates there, and Tennessee will be well served with either one of them."

Pressed on whether he is supporting either Hagerty or Sethi, Lee said, "I'm just glad that we have the two good candidates that we have. It assures Tennesseans that we'll have a senator that will represent us well in Washington."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

photo Sen. Ted Cruz R-Texas, will campaign for Manny Sethi for U.S. Senate from Tennessee on Friday. (AP file photo/Jose Luis Magana)

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