In 2018, Tennessee voters seemed to reject gutter politics. In 2020, unfortunately, it seems that we took a big step back by embracing that same style of politics.
By “gutter politics,” I mean vicious attack ads, mud-slinging, falsehoods, etc.
In 2018, Tennessee’s Republican primary for governor was a full-on assault of one another by frontrunners Randy Boyd and Diane Black. And a little-known political newcomer from Middle Tennessee, Bill Lee, took advantage by flying under the radar while Boyd and Black were emptying their war chests to attack each other. Late in the race, when it became obvious that Lee was a serious contender, Boyd and Black turned their attacks on him. But he stayed true to his message, promoted his platform, and won a shocking upset. Now he’s the governor of Tennessee.
I remember saying at the time that Tennessee’s voters had sent a message that they were tired of the attack ads. One of Diane Black’s supporters within the Republican establishment privately told me after the election that he disagreed with her campaign’s decision to go the attack route, felt like she had gotten some bad advice, and believed that had cost her the election.
But here we are, two years later, and it feels an awful lot like we’ve embraced the same gutter politics that we appeared to reject in 2018. Bill Hagerty won the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, with 51% of the vote. Dr. Manny Sethi received just 39%.
Hagerty — who is now almost a shoo-in to win the general election in November — may well prove to be a fine Senator. But he ran the most deceitful primary campaign that I can remember in a Republican race. Attacks are one thing — and Sethi certainly can’t lay any claim to having ran a clean race; he did his fair share of attacking — but attacks that are based on falsehoods have no place in an election, particularly in a primary, which is by its very nature a war between “friendly” rivals.
Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the son of Indian immigrants, was very much a long-shot candidate. Hagerty, a former member of Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet and the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, had all the name recognition — not to mention the endorsement of President Donald Trump and the support of a Republican establishment willing to throw all its weight behind him.
Yet, with six weeks remaining before the election, it felt very much like Sethi had the momentum. Polls began to show a tight race, within the margin of error, which is an essential tie. He had a groundswell of endorsements from prominent conservative outsiders like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. I tweeted that it felt like deja vu — a looming repeat of that 2018 upset by Bill Lee.
And then the attacks started.
To be fair, it might not have been the deceitful attacks by the Hagerty camp so much as the weight of the Trump support that sank Sethi. Tennessee loves Trump, and voters were bombarded by daily robocalls from the president, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, and other prominent Republicans.
To underscore the point, Trump received more than 80% of the vote in my home county in 2016; he won here by the second-largest margin of any county in Tennessee. And on Thursday, Hagerty received more than 60% of the vote here, well above what he captured across the state as a whole. That was in spite of not visiting the county and tying up almost no resources here.
It was disappointing — and a bit surreal, to be honest — to watch the Republican establishment work so hard to nominate Hagerty. That support would’ve been understandable in the general election, and it would’ve been understandable if Hagerty were an incumbent who was facing a primary challenger. But neither of those things were true. The primary race was a battle between two non-incumbents, both of whom boasted equally conservative credentials. Yet, there was the entire establishment — including several of the Republicans in Congress and the state legislature who represent my district — lobbying hard for Hagerty as he lobbed deceitful attack ads and engaged in a nasty campaign meant to destroy a fellow Republican.
It is as though Republicans forgot President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Though shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” To be fair, that phrase wasn’t coined by Reagan, though it was Reagan who made it prominent. It was actually born with California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson. And, to be fair, Reagan espoused that sentiment through the first five nominating contests of the 1976 primary campaign — and lost them all to Gerald Ford. He would later abandon that strategy and begin “speaking ill” of his fellow Republican, which helped him pick up a much-needed win and swing the momentum … but it was too little, too late, and Ford won the nomination (and went on to lose to President Jimmy Carter).
But Reagan’s sentiment wasn’t wrong, even if he didn’t always follow through with it. (As long as we’re being fair, his attacks on Ford in the 1976 primary campaign and on George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primary campaign were mild compared to the modern attacks we’re seeing in Republican primaries. And throughout his political career, Reagan used attack ads when he had to but he was better suited as a jovial, optimistic candidate.)
What was especially weird to watch during the Hagerty-Sethi battle was the wholeheartedness with which President Trump entered the fray. On one hand, Hagerty was Trump’s pick for ambassador, so he undoubtedly felt a degree of loyalty there. On the other hand, there was Trump, eagerly joining forces with “the establishment” that was hellbent on seeing its hand-picked replacement for Lamar Alexander win — the same establishment that Trump vowed to take on once he got to the White House. (Remember “drain the swamp”?)
As I watched the primary play out between Hagerty and Sethi, I was reminded — not for the first time — of how much Tennesseans will miss Lamar Alexander. Yes, he’s often criticized by conservatives for not being conservative enough and for sometimes parting with the president on matters of policy. But besides being a decent leader, he’s a fine human being and a statesman. The latter seem to be two things we’re losing in modern politics.
Republicans have been their own worst enemy in recent years. Members of the party who don’t tow a certain line are castigated as being too liberal, and they’re thrown to the wolves. We saw it with Jeff Flake in Arizona, and with Bob Corker in Tennessee. Both were highly effective U.S. Senators who were essentially forced from office for not being conservative enough.
But at what cost? Tennesseans replaced Corker with Marsha Blackburn, but can they name one thing Blackburn has been able to accomplish to advance the interests of Tennesseans? She’s a conservative firebrand, sure, but effective government is about more than towing ideological lines. Blackburn may be a pro at generating sound bytes that are the equivalent of throwing red meat to the conservative base, and at generating media coverage, but can she reach across the aisle to work with Democrats?
Think about the great Republican leaders of the past era: men like Reagan, Howard Baker, and Fred Thompson. Could any of them survive in the current environment? Or would they be branded as “RINOs,” and join men like Flake and Alexander under the wheels of the bus? Reagan is hailed as a hero of modern conservatism — and indeed he is — but it’s also easy to forget that, aside from Reaganomics and his hawkish approach to foreign policy, Reagan was quite moderate. He supported gun control and other legislation that would have him labeled a liberal in today’s environment.
Because this shift towards extremism isn’t only occurring on the right, but also on the left, we need to stop and examine where it’s leading us as a country. The 1990s may well go down as the last decade of true American exceptionalism. The economy was booming and the country’s interests were being advanced. Why? Because a Democratic president (Bill Clinton), who was quite liberal for his time, and a Republican congress, who had leaders (Newt Gingrich) quite conservative for their time, worked together to accomplish what needed to be accomplished.
Can you imagine the two sides working together in that same spirit in this day and age? I blame the Republicans’ impeachment proceedings against Clinton in 1999 for beginning the fracas that has led us to where we’re at today. It was a dumb political stunt, not in the least because Clinton was term-limited and nearing the end of his presidency. After that, American politics became a tit-for-tat, with each side trying to out-extreme the other, up and until the Democrats launched similarly short-sighted impeachment proceedings against Trump.
The only thing that will reign in this extremism is by placing people in Congress who are even-keeled, who realize that we’re all Americans, first and foremost, and that the primary focus should be on what unites us instead of what divides us. That’s where people like Lamar Alexander come into play. Tennessee is going to miss him, and this primary battle ended yesterday is proof enough of that.