NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — President Donald Trump offered one more virtual boost Wednesday on the eve of Election Day for Bill Hagerty, who is tangled up in a tough Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Trump predicted a win for his former ambassador to Japan during his second conference call appearance for Hagerty and supporters, as attention turns to Thursday's election against trauma surgeon Manny Sethi. The president showered Hagerty with praise, calling him a "stalwart defender of our conservative values" on topics ranging from gun rights to abortion opposition.
He said Hagerty was one of Trump's "strongest supporters in 2016," praised his work on the presidential transition team and said he's still "legendary over there" in Japan.
"He's a Trump conservative. He's a friend of mine. He's a great guy," Trump said of Hagerty during the five-minute call. "Tennessee is one of my favorite places. I really appreciate all of your support."
Trump stopped short of mentioning Sethi at all.
Last July, Trump let Tennessee voters know he would back Hagerty for the seat being vacated by retiring GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, months before Hagerty declared himself a candidate. Sethi had already been running for about a month when Trump's tweet turned the contest upside down.
Hagerty proceeded to ignore Sethi for most of the campaign, until back-and-forth attacks opened up a few weeks ago and never slowed down. Sethi paints himself as the conservative outsider and has been blasting Hagerty's previous business and political ties with Mitt Romney, once the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee and now a liability in Tennessee's primary because he voted to convict Trump during his impeachment trial. Hagerty himself has sought to keep his distance, calling Romney "weak-kneed."
Hagerty has questioned Sethi's conservative credentials on a variety of topics, from "Obamacare" to gun rights, often picking apart specific elements of Sethi's medical professional work and research.
At the outset, it seemed like a certainty that Hagerty would draw Trump and others in his inner circle to Tennessee for various events. Donald Trump Jr. visited in January. Then the coronavirus pandemic turned many of those other expected guest appearances into phone-in events.
The pandemic's effect on the race, which went months without in-person events, was obvious again Wednesday.
Hamilton County Health Department confirmed there was a virus exposure at a Lincoln Day Dinner the GOP held in Chattanooga on Friday. County officials said an investigation showed that a person who attended the dinner was infected.
Sethi and Hagerty were in attendance. The two were photographed not wearing masks while hugging and shaking hands with voters. Since then, they've continued to post photos from the campaign trail without masks and in close proximity to supporters who also are usually unmasked.
Both Hagerty and Sethi tested negative for COVID-19 Wednesday, their campaigns said.
Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, has a mask mandate in effect. However, it's unclear how strictly the order is being enforced. Among those not wearing a mask at the dinner was Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond.
The county encouraged attendees of the Lincoln Day Dinner to get tested and monitor their symptoms.
Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.