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What To Watch For In Tennessee’s Primary

Five states already voted on Tuesday, but this election week isn’t over yet — an idea we should all get accustomed to as November nears. Tennessee, the only state that holds its primaries on a Thursday, goes to the polls today. The marquee race is a Senate primary, but there are also a handful of House contests worth keeping an eye on, so here’s an overview of what to watch in the Volunteer State.

In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander has turned into a close battle between former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Manny Sethi. And the stakes are high: The eventual Republican nominee is all but guaranteed to win in November because of Tennessee’s dark red hue.

Initially, the race wasn’t all that competitive either. With President Trump’s endorsement, Hagerty had long been the favorite, but recent polls show that this race has tightened considerably. A mid-July poll from JMC Analytics found Hagerty ahead by just 4 percentage points, 36 percent to 32 percent, while The Trafalgar Group gave Hagerty only a 3-point edge, 42 percent to 39 percent, earlier in July. It’s also grown nastier as both Hagerty and Sethi try to one-up each other in proving their conservative bona fides.

For his part, Sethi has tried to target conservatives who might be upset with the anti-police brutality protests following George Floyd’s death, asking if they’re “sick of the mobs yet.” And in another ad, Sethi played up his anti-abortion views by questioning whether liberals believe “Black lives matter” because Planned Parenthood places clinics near neighborhoods occupied primarily by people of color. Meanwhile, as the Trump-backed candidate, Hagerty has taken every opportunity to echo the president, including blaming China for initially covering up the coronavirus. He’s also repeatedly stressed his “conservative Tennessee values” as a native son of the state and introduced a dark racial undertone to the race by consistently mispronouncing Sethi’s last name as “Set-ee” instead of “Seth-ee.” According to Politico, Hagerty said the mispronunciation was inadvertent, and that “he didn’t know which pronunciation Sethi, the son of Indian immigrants, prefers.”

Hagerty and his allies have also repeatedly hit Sethi for making a $50 donation to a Democratic congressional candidate in 2008 through ActBlue, a liberal online fundraising platform. In one ad, Hagerty made the dubious link between this contribution and the recent protests, claiming that Sethi is “bankrolling the rioters.” Standing With Conservatives, a Hagerty-aligned group, also attacked the donation, arguing that Sethi supports liberal policies such as abortion rights and gun control. But Sethi hasn’t been afraid to fire back, running an ad in which his wife took responsibility for the 2008 contribution, then attacking Hagerty for making much larger donations to Mitt Romney and Al Gore in past presidential campaigns.

That said, Hagerty has a clear resource advantage: He had raised $12.3 million as of July 17, $6.5 million of which came from personal loans, while Sethi had raised only $4.6 million ($1.9 million of which came from his own pocket). Hagerty entered the final stretch with seven times more cash on hand — about $2.7 million to Sethi’s $386,000. Still, Sethi has benefited from slightly more outside spending, either from groups supporting him or attacking Hagerty, about $2.5 million compared to roughly $1.7 million for Hagerty. Plus, Sethi has endorsements from GOP notables such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Paul, from next-door Kentucky, even cut an ad for Sethi asking voters to back “the constitutional conservative Tennessee deserves.” But that doesn’t mean every GOP senator is behind Sethi — Tennessee’s other senator, Marsha Blackburn, has endorsed Hagerty. Don’t be surprised if this race proves to be a nailbiter.

There’s also a crowded, fractious GOP primary in Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District. The eastern Tennessee seat is the most Republican-leaning district in the state, and Republican Rep. Phil Roe’s retirement has attracted a number of viable contenders.

It’s nigh impossible to pick out who the front-runners are, but the candidates with the most money are drawing a lot from their own bank accounts. Pharmacist Diana Harshbarger has raised nearly $1.5 million and pathologist Joshua Gapp has raised about $850,000, but nearly all their money comes from personal loans. Additionally, former Kingsport Mayor John Clark has loaned himself nearly $500,000 of the roughly $650,000 he’s put together. Three other notable candidates — state Sen. Rusty Crowe, former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden and state Rep. Timothy Hill — haven’t self-funded as much, but they have managed to raise between $230,000 and $375,000. And crucially for Hill, he’s also benefited from about $945,000 in spending by the campaign arm of the Club for Growth, which endorsed him. No other candidate has received much outside assistance.

In addition to supporting Hill, the Club’s ad spending has mostly targeted Harshbarger and Crowe, which suggests they may be the leading contenders. The most recent poll confirms this to some extent, though it showed a pretty unpredictable race overall: A late-July survey by Spry Strategies/WJHL found Crowe and Harshbarger tied for the lead with 16 percent, followed by Gapp at 12 percent, Hill at 10 percent and both Clark and Darden at 9 percent.

Two other primaries are also on our radar. In the Nashville-based 5th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who has held the seat since 2003, faces attorney Keeda Haynes. Haynes, who is Black, served almost four years in jail for a marijuana-related offense she denies committing before becoming a public defender. She is now challenging Cooper from the left in a highly-educated district that has become more liberal over the last few cycles. (Cooper is a long-standing member of the Blue Dog Coalition.) Haynes might have a difficult time unseating Cooper, though, as he’s raised about seven times as much and the district isn’t as urban or racially diverse as some of the other districts that have cast out white Democratic incumbents in recent years. However, that’s not the case in the Memphis-based 9th Congressional District. Two-thirds of the district’s residents are Black, but the seat is held by seven-term Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, who is white. However, Cohen has regularly fended off Black primary challengers, so former Shelby County Democratic Party Chair and Navy veteran Corey Strong will be looking to pull an upset as Strong has little money while Cohen is sitting on $1.2 million in the bank.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated if something significant happens in any of these races. And if you’re craving even more elections this week, remember that Hawaii’s primaries are this Saturday.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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