Tennessee Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Bill Hagerty topped GOP rival Manny Sethi Friday night in a Hamilton County Republican Party straw poll for the state's hotly contested Aug. 6 primary election.
No vote totals were publicly announced at the annual Lincoln Dinner fundraising event, which the GOP said was sold out.
The candidates' back-to-back appearances at the Chattanooga event came as Hagerty, 60, a private equity firm founder and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, and Nashville trauma surgeon Sethi, 42, compete in advance of Thursday's primary. Early voting ended on Saturday.
The Hamilton County GOP event was not without some controversy after one of the two keynote speakers spoke up for Hagerty. The sisters, known as "Diamond and Silk," are livestream video bloggers, political activists and former Fox Nation hosts.
After first praising President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Hagerty, one of the sisters said, "Make sure you vote for Bill Hagerty."
"I'm sitting next to my candidate, Manny Sethi, and they launch into a full-throated endorsement of Bill Hagerty," said Fred Decosimo, describing his initial astonishment over the incident Saturday during a Times Free Press interview. "And I said, 'Golly Manny, you need to get your money back. You just subsidized what looks like a paid commercial for an opponent."
Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, the sisters known as Diamond and Silk, spoke before the candidates made their pitches.
Hamilton County GOP Chairwoman Marsha Yessick told the Times Free Press on Saturday that she had spoken before the event with the sisters' manager to go over points she hoped they would cover, noting that "of course endorsing Hagerty was not one of those. I had no idea they were going to do that. They are the kindest, sweetest girls you will ever meet. They were absolutely humble and wonderful girls."
Yessick read from a statement provided by Diamond and Silk's manager, which said the sisters "apologize for the nonmention of the other candidates. They feel horrible. There was just some excitement on Twitter that President Trump endorsed Hagerty so their excitement took over. They never intended to overshadow anyone and I promise they have never praised one candidate over another at any other Lincoln Day dinner event. They truly are sorry that this happened, they feel awful!!!"
"It was a complete shock," said state House Rep. Mike Carter, an Ooltewah Republican and Hagerty supporter.
Carter said his understanding was Hagerty got 246 votes in the straw poll with Sethi coming in second at 135 and other votes going to lesser-known GOP candidates. Individual tickets cost $125 each. Some Senate and other candidates bought up tables for supporters.
During the event, Hagerty touted his ties to Trump, as he has throughout the campaign.
Describing himself as a "Christian, a conservative, a businessman," the former state commissioner of economic development recalled growing up in a small town in Sumner County and becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
He denounced "radical, socialist Democrats," saying "if these Marxists have their way, they will shove our nation over the cliff into socialism. That's why we need a senator with the backbone and the guts and the experience to stand up to this angry mob and to say no more."
Sethi described growing up in Coffee County, the child of parents who "grew up in abject poverty in India, lost everything they had when they were children. Both pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to become doctors. Came to this country legally with an 'L' in the 1970s, looking for a better way of life for their unborn kids."
"I lost my father when I was a young man. That's when I found Christ," Sethi said, adding that he also realized he wanted to become a doctor. He said he believes the GOP primary represents "a generational opportunity to make a difference. A generational opportunity for change. Our country faces so many challenges. This mob, this burning, rioting, looting in the streets. And if you say anything, they call you a racist. Are you sick and tired of this?"
Two publicly released surveys in July by Trafalgar Group and JMC Analytics show a tight race with Hagerty slightly ahead but the contest largely a dead heat given the polls' margins of error.
With Saturday being the last day of early voting in this coming Thursday's primary, both candidates continued making their pitches to voters.
In other Republican U.S. Senate primary developments:
In the hours leading up to Hamilton County's GOP fundraiser on Saturday, Sethi, a Nashville trauma surgeon, charged in a tweet that he had come under siege from a barrage of negative, misleading and false attacks from both Hagerty and super PACs backing his opponent.
Sethi said in his tweet that in Franklin County, "I was asked to address the claims that I support abortion, [Black Lives Matter], and Obamacare. Here's my answer: my opponent is spreading lies. I am staunchly pro-life, and I know life begins at conception. I am strongly opposed to BLM. And I have always opposed Obamacare."
Meanwhile, drama continues between U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican supporting Hagerty, and Fleischmann's predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican who is backing Sethi.
"I've worked with @BillHagertyTN for years, and he's a good friend of mine," stated Fleischmann in a tweet. "Bill will continue to work for Tennesseans when he gets to the Senate. He knows our values and will fight for the Volunteer State."
Wamp said in his own tweet that "This supposed 'leader' (@BillHagertyTN) is nothing more than a Fanboy one trick pony. @DrMannySenate is a real man with purpose, vision and guts. We don't need cheerleaders in DC we need LEADERS. Tennessee needs Dr. Manny Sethi. Vote early tomorrow!"
On Friday, the Gun Owners of America organization endorsed Sethi, saying the "political outsider" earned its "A" rating "because he opposes any new gun control laws and will work to roll back unconstitutional gun laws already on the books. He believes, with the Founding Fathers, that the Second Amendment is a safeguard of freedom and liberty."
The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has awarded both Hagerty and Sethi the organization's "AQ" rating, which is equivalent to an "A" grade but given to candidates when the NRA uses a questionnaire for candidates who don't have a voting record.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.