Cooper: Is U.S. Senate race clear for Bill Hagerty?

Cooper: Is U.S. Senate race clear for Bill Hagerty?

July 12th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

With former Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, declining to run for U.S. Senate in 2020, the way may become clear for Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, if he is interested.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

One might imagine the conflict former Gov. Bill Haslam felt.

On the one hand, he would have numerous advantages if he ran in 2020 for the United States Senate seat held by the retiring Lamar Alexander.

Haslam, 60, was a popular and successful governor, he would have no trouble winning a party primary, he is personally wealthy and would have no difficulty raising money, and he would be a heavy favorite to win a general election in November against a Democratic Party that has no current candidate with statewide name recognition.

On the other hand, he would be one of 100 members of the Senate, he would be unable to have much clout and he would be serving four years of his first term either during the presidency of a volatile Republican with widespread unpopularity or under a radical Democrat unlikely to be able to get much done because of a likely divided Congress.

Certainly the National Republican Senate Committee and probably President Donald Trump or members of his White House staff would have applied pressure to get Haslam to run. Perhaps his wife, family and politically connected friends might have told him it was not worth the trouble.

In the end, he said no, adding that he "wrestled" with the decision for more than six months and declaring the deliberation "has been the hardest vocational decision in my life."

One of the political friends with whom he might have consulted was former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, who left the Senate at the end of two terms in January after deciding not to run for re-election. Corker, always a can-do businessman and active mayor, expressed frustration in the past over the pace in the Senate and the ability to get things done.

Nevertheless, the Republican managed to play a national role during his tenure, becoming involved in the proposed bailout for failing automakers during the late days of the George W. Bush administration and the early days of the Obama administration and rising to become the influential chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

With Haslam's decision, Alexander remains the only former Tennessee governor in the last 100 years to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

The decision also leaves the race wide open, though the Republican nominee will be a prohibitive favorite to win in a state won by Trump by 26 percentage points in 2016.

Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi, who has ties to former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist and helped write a book with the former Senate majority leader, last month announced he would run as a Republican.

U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, also a physician, announced shortly after Haslam's decision Thursday that he would not make the race. Although he was elected to Congress in 2018, he had been nominated in 2017 to be U.S. Secretary of the Army by Trump but withdrew after remarks he made about transgender individuals in 2016 that some considered controversial were raised. He also has made comments some interpreted as being anti-vaccination but said his own children had been vaccinated.

Perhaps the closest natural heir to the Howard Baker-Alexander seat, and closest to their moderate conservative politics, is Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who was economic and community development commissioner under Haslam and served as national finance chairman for Republican Mitt Romney's presidential bid in 2008.

He also has ties to Trump, having raised money for the Trump Victory Committee and served on his transition team.

Hagerty, 59, a native of Nashville who was educated at Vanderbilt University and has never run for public office, spent many years as a private equity investor. He also was an economic adviser and White House Fellow under former President George H.W. Bush.

He also founded and led the Nashville MLS Steering Committee, which sought and was successful in bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Nashville. That team is expected to begin play in 2020.

On the Democratic side, James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and Iraq War veteran, already has announced his candidacy. He also made a bid for the Senate seat Corker was vacating in 2018 but dropped out after popular former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen got in the race (and lost to Republican Marsha Blackburn by almost 11 percentage points).

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said last month he would not seek the nomination for Senate but finish out his term, which concludes in 2021.

At this point, the deck appears to be clear for Hagerty, if he is interested, but only hours after the Haslam and Green decisions that helped shape the race is too soon to be declaring "game over" for anyone.

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