NASHVILLE — With early voting starting Friday in Tennessee, the long-simmering feud between the two top Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat has erupted into a barrage of charges as well as television and radio ads assailing each other's conservative credentials.
Tensions began spilling over between former U.S. Ambassador Bill Hagerty, a businessman who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, and Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi following a July 6-7 survey of 1,062 likely GOP voters.
The Trafalgar Group survey showed a tighter race. While Hagerty was in the lead at 42.3%, Sethi's support was at 38.8%. A third candidate, Memphis doctor and businessman George Flinn, was at 3.9%. The survey's margin of error was stated by the polling firm at 2.4%. The website FiveThirtyEight gives Trafalgar a C- rating on its polling.
All the GOP candidates — there are a dozen more — are vying to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
As both candidates' rhetoric became sharper in recent days, it went airborne this week and began playing out in a new TV spot on Thursday.
Titled "Patriot," the ad spotlights a military veteran, Joseph James of Hendersonville. Standing on two prosthetic legs, James describes having been deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11.
"Our flag reminds me of the patriots who gave their lives to defend America. Nobody should ever burn it, and I don't trust Manny Sethi to stop it," James said, going on to charge that "Sethi has donated to the organization that has bankrolled these rioters, aiding liberal extremists. Tennessee deserves a senator who respects our sacrifices and honors our flag. That is why I support Bill Hagerty."
Chris Devaney, Sethi's campaign chairman and senior adviser, called the ad a "desperate" attack and said it evidently refers to a $50 donation Sethi once made to a family friend who ran for Congress. It was made by ActBlue, a payment processing company often used by Democratic candidates and organizations.
"It's clear that Bill Hagerty is concerned about the direction of his campaign. Dr. Manny is winning this race and now all Ambassador Hagerty and his henchmen can do is resort to lies and misleading attacks," Devaney said.
Sethi's campaign quickly went up with a video response with Sethi speaking into the camera saying, "Why is the establishment attacking a nice guy like me? Well, folks are finding out Bill Hagerty has been endorsed by [Utah Sen.] Mitt Romney, donated to [former Vice President] Al Gore. Made millions off common core. Tried to get Tennessee to do trade deals with China."
Romney has made no endorsement in the race. Hagerty has repeatedly criticized Romney, the GOP's unsuccessful 2012 presidential nominee, who has been critical of Trump and voted earlier this year in favor of one of the House articles of impeachment.
Hagerty campaign spokeswoman Abigail Sigler said "of course, Bill worked to defeat Barack Obama in 2012, unlike Massachusetts Manny Sethi who applied to be in the Obama/Biden White House. Manny Sethi's Never Trumpers have been attacking Bill since the day President Trump endorsed and announced his run for Senate."
Sigler said Trump "looked at all the candidates in this race, and he endorsed Bill because he trusts Bill to stand with him to protect conservative values, get our economy going again, hold China accountable and stand up for life."
A website calling itself "Massachusetts Manny" has recently gone up to attack Sethi, accusing him, among other things, of having "supported Obamacare" and said Sethi "even donated to ActBlue, the left-wing group bankrolling Antifa rioters and Black Lives Matter."
Last week, Hagerty resigned from the board of the futures brokerage firm R.J. O'Brien & Associates following the firm's recent posts on social media platforms in support of African Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sethi had pounced on the disclosure.
A number of high-profile national Republicans are supporting Hagerty, whose own campaign polling has shown him well ahead of Sethi.
Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, says the back-and-forth hardly comes as a surprise.
"I would imagine that everyone is nervous in this environment, and in a Republican primary you can't take anything for granted," Syler said. "No matter how good you might feel about the election, these are unpredictable times. And the way things generally go may not be right."
Syler said that "with all of the things that Bill Hagerty has going for him, President Trump is still extremely popular in Tennessee. That endorsement is important."
Other contests up in the Aug. 6 election include party primaries for all nine of Tennessee's congressional seats, half the state Senate and all 99 state representatives. Voters will also see contests for county property assessor and county school boards.
If recent history is any guide, upwards of half the total votes cast in this election will come during the early-voting period between July 17 and Aug. 1, excluding Sundays.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.