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Senate Race Candidates Fight To Show Loyalty To Trump At Tennessee's Primary

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, we're going to focus here back at home and politics. There is a Republican primary in Tennessee to replace Sen. Lamar Alexander. The two candidates have been fighting over who is more loyal to President Trump. The race reflects a steady evolution of the Republican Party in that state. Sergio Martinez-Beltran of member station WPLN reports.

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: In one corner is Trump's former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty. The 60-year-old businessman is the president's favorite in this race. Trump announced Hagerty's candidacy even while he was still a diplomat. Hagerty has used his close relationship as an advantage.

BILL HAGERTY: I just got off the phone with President Trump a little while ago. He and I have seen many issues the same way for a long time.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But one challenge for Hagerty is that he has been close to some of Trump's biggest adversaries within the GOP. In 2012, he worked for Mitt Romney's then-presidential campaign. And in 2016, Hagerty and his wife, Chrissy, appeared on the ballot as delegates for another presidential candidate, Jeb Bush. Hagerty then joined Trump's campaign.

HAGERTY: I believed in candidate Trump so much then that I took six months of my life and volunteered full-time to come in and help him get elected.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: One of the people who has questioned Hagerty's past is his main opponent, Manny Sethi. The orthopedic trauma surgeon otherwise doesn't seem to have any policy disagreement with Hagerty. Out on the stump, he attacks Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter protesters. He supports Trump's hard-line views on immigration. That's even though his own parents are from India. He stresses they came to the U.S. legally. Sethi runs his nonprofit, Healthy Tennessee, and says that experience pulled him into politics.

MANNY SETHI: Now, the president heard about this - President Trump - so he invited us to the White House. And he couldn't remember Manny, so he nicknamed me Tennessee. True story. I spoke at one of his rallies. Look, folks; we have got to stand behind our president right now more than ever.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Sethi's main message is that out of the two candidates, he is the outsider.

SETHI: We are taking on the establishment, ladies and gentlemen. I need all of you with us.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Hagerty and Sethi are running to replace retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, and how both have embraced President Trump is a reflection on how the Tennessee Republican Party has evolved. The state has been a breeding ground for centrist Republicans seeking higher office, such as Alexander and former Senators Howard Baker and Bob Corker. Tom Ingram oversaw the winning gubernatorial and Senate campaigns of Alexander.

TOM INGRAM: We used to say when Lamar got elected governor that he got elected by grace of the Democrats. We had to take about a third of the Democratic vote away from a Democratic opponent to win those elections then.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But that's not the case anymore. Now Republicans have a supermajority in Tennessee, and candidates are mostly trying to satisfy their base. Ingram says he hopes whoever becomes the nominee understands that that might not work in the long term.

INGRAM: It's going to be incumbent on whoever the next senator is to hopefully put the campaign behind them and focus on serving the people and drop all the partisanship.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: While Tennessee's past senators have had a reputation for being independent-minded, both Hagerty and Sethi have vowed to stand with the president at all times. For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "TO THE NTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.