Both Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi have been holding in-person events in the middle of a pandemic, with just one month until the August primary. They’re vying to become the GOP nominee in the race for the U.S. Senate.
At a time when local health leaders are asking people to wear face masks, Dr. Manny Sethi is not. Sethi recently held a campaign event in Murfreesboro, where he shook hands and hugged those in attendance.
The event was held outdoors in a grassy area by a parking lot — but not because of social distancing reasons. According to Sethi’s campaign, people just couldn’t fit in the initial location, a barbecue restaurant. But the event served as an opportunity for Sethi, the candidate with less name recognition, to present his platform to more than 120 people.
“We are taking on the establishment, ladies and gentlemen,” Sethi told the crowd. “I need all of you with us.”
That’s the message Sethi wants people to remember: He is an outsider. Sethi is not part of the “political establishment,” he says, because he has never run for office. Instead, his nonprofit Healthy Tennessee is his main qualification.
“Now the president heard about this, so he invited us to the White House. And he couldn’t remember ‘Manny,’ so he nicknamed me ‘Tennessee,’ ” Sethi said. “True story. I spoke at one of his rallies. Look, folks, we have got to stand behind our president right now more than ever.”
His stump speech is fairly standard for a Republican candidate these days. He has attacked Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter protesters. And he is a supporter of the President Trump on immigration, even though his own parents are from India. He stresses they came to the U.S. legally.
But Trump has picked a favorite in this U.S. Senate race: former ambassador to Japan and former Tennessee Commissioner of Economic Development Bill Hagerty.
Trump announced Hagerty’s candidacy even while he was still the ambassador. And the president recently tweeted his endorsement. Hagerty has used that to his advantage.
“I just got off the phone with President Trump a little while ago,” Hagerty told WPLN News during a phone interview last week. “He and I see many issues in the same way for a long time.”
He said Tennesseans should vote for him for the same reasons they voted for Trump. Both say they are Christians, conservatives and businessmen.
“I have a unique relationship with the president and with members of this administration because I’ve worked with them closely over the past four years,” Hagerty said.
But some Republicans question his loyalty to Trump. In 2012, he left the state government to join the team of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney, now a Utah senator, is one of the president’s biggest critics within the Republican party.
And four years later, Hagerty and his wife Chrissy appeared on the ballot as delegates for another presidential candidate — Jeb Bush.
He says he later changed his mind and that it became clear to him that Trump was the best choice. Hagerty then joined Trump’s campaign.
“I believed in candidate Trump so much then that I took six months of my life and volunteered full time to come and help get him elected,” Hagerty said.
In recent years, most of the candidates endorsed by Trump have won. So it could be assumed that the candidate backed by the president will be the GOP nominee in Tennessee.
But a recent poll has Hagerty ahead of Sethi by only four points, with many voters undecided.