CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:17 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, to reflect that State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, supports Bill Hagerty for U.S. Senate.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty's lopsided straw-poll victory over GOP rival Manny Sethi at a Hamilton County GOP weekend fundraiser has generated yet more friction between the two camps as the candidates battle for the nomination in Tennessee's primary election this Thursday.
While Hagerty touted the victory, prominent Sethi supporters charged that Hagerty's campaign bought up tickets to fill 18 tables at the event and brought in large numbers of out-of-town Republicans and campaign volunteers to sway the Friday night straw poll conducted during the Lincoln Day Dinner event.
"Hagerty bought 18 tables at this event in order to fix the straw poll," tweeted Weston Wamp, a Chattanoogan and two-time congressional candidate now backing Sethi, a Nashville orthopedic surgeon. "Had supporters from Roane and Anderson County come to sit at the tables."
Wamp's father, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, jumped in with a since-deleted tweet of his own, saying, "In 2010 race for Governor, I won virtually every straw poll across the state + got beat soundly on Election Day. Same thing will happen to @BillHagertyTN on Thursday," the elder Wamp stated before adding, "He hires young girls to show up in short skirts. Pitiful campaign. Vote @DrMannySenate."
The former congressman's remark drew a public chiding from U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, who is backing Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, in his bid to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
"Note to @ZachWamp," tweeted Blackburn. "Now we know what you think of young conservative women who show up to campaign and be involved in the political process. It's disgraceful that in 2020 conservative women are still fighting such bias."
While local GOP officials announced Hagerty won the straw vote, they did not reveal totals. State Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, a Hagerty supporter, told the Times Free Press that it was his understanding that Hagerty received 246 votes with Sethi coming in second at 135 in the multi-candidate field.
Weston Wamp, a Sethi supporter, said in an interview that campaigns often organize attendees for straw polls, which can help provide bragging rights to campaigns but don't count at all on Election Day.
But what drew his attention was seeing Republican friends and acquaintances from Roane and Anderson counties, about 140 miles north of Chattanooga, at the supposedly Hamilton County event.
"Well, certainly it is the reason there was the kind of margin that there was," Weston Wamp said, estimating there were also some 50 or so Hagerty campaign staffers and volunteers alone who were present, judging by a "lot of commotion and whooping and hollering" from them. That's not reflective of what's happening on the ground locally, he said.
"I mean, this race will be very close in Hamilton County on Thursday. And I suspect Manny will win. And there's a whole lot of indicators that he's doing extremely well in all of East Tennessee."
Weston Wamp said his point is that a straw poll a week out "where a candidate's effectively allowed to buy as many votes is propaganda at the point that the candidate is sharing."
Sethi's campaign manager, Chris Devaney, said the Sethi campaign also bought and provided tickets to some supporters but not to the extent the Hagerty campaign did, and most of them lived in Hamilton County.
Each table at the event seats about eight people, noted Weston Wamp, adding that "Manny had a few tables as well so there were some bought seats on either side. You take out the 'paid' votes, I don't think that room is reflective of the tens of thousands of Republicans who have voted and will vote on Thursday in this county."
At least some Sethi people came from nearby Bradley County.
Tickets for the event were $125 per person. Former Congressman Wamp, who supports Sethi, did not attend.
Hagerty spokeswoman Abigail Sigler noted campaigns often provide tickets to supporters and staffs at straw poll events, noting "there are tables to fill. It happens at like every Reagan Day or Lincoln Day Dinner."
She also noted that with many county Republican organizations having canceled their annual dinners because of the coronavirus, the Hamilton County event, which had been rescheduled to this month, was "like the only one" in Southeast Tennessee.
Alluding to the elder Wamp's deleted tweet reference to "short skirts," Sigler said "we're proud of the young women on Team Hagerty, who aren't defined by their wardrobe, but rather their intelligence, strength and commitment to electing a true conservative. Our campaign has elevated and empowered young conservative women, and their parents are horrified by these comments, particularly as they come from a former Tennessee Congressman."
Sigler charged, "this is a new low, and frankly, it's sickening. We need more young women involved in campaigns, and less men focused on what they're wearing."
It's the third controversy stemming from the local GOP's premier annual event, starting with keynote speakers' Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, two live-stream video bloggers and conservative political activists known as Diamond and Silk who touted Hagerty, drawing allegations that they tipped the scales for one candidate. They later said they had not realized there was a contested primary with the upcoming straw vote.
Critics on social media, meanwhile, pounced on photos showing Hagerty, Sethi, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond and most other Republicans not wearing masks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That was despite a mandatory COVID-19 directive from Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, also a Republican, that requires mask usage in public.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-424-0484. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.