FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Two Republican U.S. senators and potential 2024 presidential contenders barnstormed across the state this past week on behalf of opposing front-runners in the GOP's hotly contested Aug. 6 U.S. Senate primary for Tennessee.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas joined former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty at three events in different towns and cities, with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas doing likewise for Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi.
Cotton, a decorated U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and a staunch conservative, told the crowd of least 100 Hagerty supporters during a morning event at a Franklin restaurant that "there's one way that you can tell who's walked the walk and who's just talking the talk. That is who was fighting when it matters, who was on the front lines in our campaigns, making sure that we elected Donald Trump.
"It was Bill Hagerty in 2016 — when it wasn't popular in a lot of circles," Cotton added, saying "a lot of Republicans sat on the sidelines" during the 2016 election.
"A lot of Republicans became so-called 'never Trumpers.' Bill Hagerty was there from the beginning, working tirelessly to make sure that Donald Trump won Tennessee, that he won the presidency and we were able to restore a conservative to the White House."
Hagerty, a co-founder of a private equity investment firm, headed Trump's general election effort in Tennessee, later serving on the transition team before Trump named him an ambassador. Trump has repeatedly declared his full support for Hagerty.
Joining Cotton and Hagerty was incumbent U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of nearby Brentwood, an icon among many hard-right Tennessee conservatives who is backing Hagerty and earlier in the week blasted Sethi, the founder of the nonprofit Healthy Tennessee group which provides free medical checkups to underserved areas.
"What we're going to be able to do is send a consistent conservative to the U.S. Senate — not someone who is conveniently conservative because it is politically expedient," Blackburn told the Franklin audience.
Hagerty said "only one person in this race was back in 2016 helping President Trump get elected. I volunteered full time for six months to do it. I was the only person that stepped up and did this, while we have other candidates that wouldn't lift a finger or donate a dime to President Trump, or any other Republican presidential candidate for that matter."
He later hit stops in Clarksville and Jackson.
Hours later, Cruz joined Sethi at the Music City Baptist Church in Lebanon, which was packed with at least 350 attendees. Behind him was an orange poster with the slogan "Manny vs. The Machine" emblazoned in white lettering.
"This election has Washington, D.C., freaking out," Cruz, who came in second to Trump in Tennessee's 2016 Republican presidential primary, told the cheering crowd. "They're terrified. Washington wants senators who will go with the flow, that aren't going to rock the boat, that aren't going to cause any trouble.
"That will just quietly get absorbed in the swamp," added Cruz, utilizing the metaphor often deployed by Trump during his successful campaign to describe Washington.
Sethi told the crowd that over nearly 18 months, "I've been traveling the state, going from town to town, city to city, going to every event I could, talking about our conservative outsider message, that we need a true Christian conservative, someone who's going to take on the establishment. And this movement has become bigger than me, it's about you. ... We are two weeks away from winning this thing, and they are going to throw so much at us in the next two weeks, all of these attack ads and these lies, and we've got to stand firm."
Also speaking for Sethi was former state Rep. Joe Carr, who in 2014 ran against U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in the Tennessee Republican primary, surprising many by a stronger-than-expected showing. Sethi and Hagerty are competing for the seat of Alexander, who isn't seeking a fourth term.
Carr said Sethi is the standard-bearer for the conservative movement in Tennessee and urged audience members to contribute as Sethi faces a barrage of attack ads from what he called moderate Republican independent expenditure groups. "We need your help because this is a grassroots campaign," Carr said.
Sethi and Cruz went to Jonesborough and Knoxville earlier in the day.
Speaking later with reporters, Cruz sought to brush aside talk that he and Cotton could be facing each other in 2024 primaries, a situation that could be accelerated if Trump loses his general election contest with Democrat Joe Biden.
"Look, we'll see," Cruz said. "As you know, I ran before. We came very close the last time. I was grateful to be on that journey. But Donald Trump won, and since that day, I've worked hand-in-hand with President Trump."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.