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President Donald Trump speaks during an event on regulatory reform on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NASHVILLE — President Donald Trump on Friday lavished praise on Tennessee Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty during a Friday evening conference call, telling listeners that his former ambassador to Japan "will never let you down."

"You got a real primary here, the other side's spending a lot of money but Bill is somebody who will just never ever let you down," Trump said. "He'll go so far out that he'll never let you down."

Trump is endorsing Hagerty, who helped lead his 2016 presidential campaign as its Tennessee chair and then helped lead the president-elect's transition team. He said Hagerty has "been so great in so many ways. And we need to send great conservative voices out there."

The call was billed as a tele-town hall. There was no video component, and no members of the public were allowed to ask questions.

Hagerty is running in Tennessee Republicans' Aug. 6 primary, where early voting began Friday and runs through Aug 1. His GOP primary battle with Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi contest is getting increasingly rancorous.

Hagerty said, "I can't tell you how honored I am to have your support. I promise you, sir, that when Tennesseans send me to the Senate, I'm going to be your strongest ally there."

Denouncing what he called an "angry liberal mob " he charged is seeking "to destroy the America we know and love," Hagerty told the president, "Your leadership is more important now than ever."

During the nearly nine minute call, Trump bemoaned not being able to hold an in-person rally, saying he loves Tennessee. The call came in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in many parts of the country.

Trump criticized China over the coronavirus and other issues, saying, "We need somebody who's going to be tough on China, and that's going to be Bill."

Sethi's campaign said the call was an indication that Hagerty's campaign is floundering.

"It's obvious Ambassador Hagerty is losing," said Chris Devaney, Sethi's campaign chairman and senior adviser. "He had to bring in the president to campaign for him by phone as early voting started."

Devaney said Sethi "supports President Trump — that's why Manny spoke at one of his rallies and briefed the president at the White House about his health care nonprofit, Healthy Tennessee. It's clear, though, that the president is unaware of Bill Hagerty's close relationship with Mitt Romney."

Hagerty formerly served as national finance chairman for Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. Romney later became a U.S. senator from Utah and was the only Republican to vote for one of the impeachment articles against Trump.

Hagerty and Sethi have been trading blows all week.

As Hagerty campaigned on the Upper Cumberland Plateau this week, he charged during a Times Free Press interview that two members on Sethi's Healthy Tennessee board "relentlessly attacked" then-Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn in her successful 2018 campaign against Democrat and former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

"They even appeared in attack ads, his board members appeared in attack ads against Marsha Blackburn," Hagerty said.

It was a reference to a 2008 "open letter" newspaper ad from the Tennessee Democratic Party, signed by 79 physicians including Dr. Alex Jahangir and Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld of Nashville — both Healthy Tennessee board members. The ad stated that as "medical professionals, we cannot sit silently while Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn attempts to mislead Tennesseans about the opioid crisis and her role in fueling it."

Stating "the facts are clear," the physicians' letter said "Blackburn co-sponsored a bill that stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its ability to stop suspicious orders of opioids."

Hagerty said Sethi "stood by, said nothing. They're still on his board." Hagerty noted he himself "had an issue recently where I served on a board recently that made a post favorable to the group called Black Lives Matter. As soon as I found out about it, I resigned from that board. Because I disagreed with that position. And I disagree with everything the Marxist organization Black Lives Matter stands for."

Sethi's campaign had attacked Hagerty over the board membership.

Hagerty's campaign also charged that Jahangir, who now serves on Metro Nashville's COVID-19 task force, has defended the Black Lives Matter protests in Nashville.

Devaney, Sethi's campaign manager, said Healthy Tennessee "is not a policy making organization." He added, "It provides preventative health care to thousands of Tennesseans across the state. He's saved countless lives, and it's a nonpartisan board of health care professionals. To attack an organization like that is frankly quite disgusting.

Hagerty's campaign notes Ehrenfeld contributed $2,000 to Sethi's campaign. Devaney said "we can't control who donates to our campaign. I don't think that Ambassador Hagerty wants us to go through his donations with a fine tooth comb because I don't think Tennesseans will like what they say."

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hagerty served as chairman of Trump's Tennessee Victory effort. Following Trump's win, Hagerty was a senior leader of the Trump transition team before being named as ambassador to Japan.

Hagerty said he also is "the only candidate who lifted a finger or donated a dime to elect Donald Trump and stop Hillary Clinton from ever becoming president. I did everything I could to make sure Donald Trump became President Trump, and I'm honored President Trump gave me his complete and total endorsement for the Senate."

In other campaign developments:

"Veterans for Dr. Manny" group criticizes Hagerty over attack ad

Meanwhile, five retired U.S. Army generals and Marine Corps lieutenant colonels who belong to the Veterans for Dr. Manny group fired a broadside Friday at Hagerty. It came following a new Hagerty ad unveiled Thursday in which a wounded military veteran, standing on two prosthetic legs by an American flag, lambasted Sethi, saying "nobody should ever burn [the flag], and I don't trust Manny Sethi to stop it. Sethi has donated to the organization that has bankrolled these rioters, aiding liberal extremists."

The ad was apparently referring to a $50 donation Sethi once made to a family friend who ran for Congress. It was made through ActBlue, a payment processing company often used by Democratic candidates and organizations.

The Veterans for Dr. Manny group, whose members include retired U.S. Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell III of Hamilton County, said that "what we saw [Thursday] from Bill Hagerty was dishonest and misleading. Ambassador Hagerty knows that Dr. Manny stands strong against lawlessness and the mobs, and to use a veteran in an ad to deliver a dishonest and misleading attack on Dr. Manny says a lot about Bill Hagerty.

"We've vetted Dr. Manny thoroughly, which is why we've been honored to chair 'Veterans for Dr. Manny' for the last eight months, a group of hundreds of veterans across the state who know that Dr. Manny is a real conservative with a real plan to take care of our nation's veterans," the retired officers said and called on Hagerty and his campaign to yank the spot, saying it was the "honorable thing to do."

 

GOP primary campaign polls

A July 6-7 survey conducted by the Trafalger Group of 1,062 likely GOP primary voters found Hagerty's support at at 42.3% with Sethi at 38.8% and a third candidate, Memphis doctor and businessman George Flinn at 3.9%. The poll's margin of error was 2.4%. It was not immediately clear who paid Trafalgar to do the survey. The polling site FiveThirtyEight gives Trafalgar's polling a C-minus.

A Hagerty campaign poll conducted June 28-30 of 651 likely GOP primary voters showed Hagerty had a 45% to 29% lead over Sethi. Another five percent indicate they would vote for Flinn. The survey, conducted by The Tarrance Group, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

Meanwhile, a Sethi survey of 800, conducted June 30 and July 1 by Victory Phones, said the race was a statistical dead heat with 33% supporting Hagerty compared to 31% supporting Sethi. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.46%.

 

Latest on major Republican candidates' fundraising

All federal candidates this week filed their second quarter fundraising numbers, the last before the primary election.

Hagerty reported raising $978,227 from individuals and political action committees. He spent $2.5 million on his effort, leaving him with $4.2 million on hand, including a $2.5 million line of credit he has.

Sethi raised $432,797 during the April 1-June 30 period, and spent $1.75 million, leaving him with $721,395. Earlier in the campaign, Sethi loaned his effort $1.9 million.

A third millionaire in the race, Memphis physician and businessman George Flinn who is funding his own campaign, opened his wallet and injected $3.2 million into his campaign during the second quarter, raising his total self-funded effort to $4.75 million.

Democratic hopeful James Mackler, an attorney and Iraq war combat veteran, raised $351,035 and spent $269,935. He reported having $607,059 in cash on hand.

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

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty meets with law enforcement officials during Cookeville, Tenn., campaign swing. (Andy Sher / Times Free Press).
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