Courthouse News Service: Political Newcomers in Bitter Fight to Replace Tennessee Senator

Courthouse News Service: Political Newcomers in Bitter Fight to Replace Tennessee Senator

By Daniel Jackson

Courthouse News Service

July 31, 2020

The three frontrunners in the race – two Republicans and a Democrat – have all claimed to be political outsiders. All are running for office for the first time. Each has responded differently to campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic. And the race has turned into bitter sniping.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Senate primary, Nashville attorney James Mackler has collected the most money of the candidates vying for the party’s nomination, with $615,000 cash on hand and $1.5 million already spent, according to the campaigns’ reports to the Federal Election Commission

By comparison, Hagerty spent nearly $9.7 million and has almost $2.7 million cash on hand. Sethi has spent $4.2 million and has almost $386,000 cash on hand, according to recent FEC filings.  

Mackler made rural health care a focal point of his campaign. He announced his run in front of a shuttered rural hospital in McKenzie, Tennessee, at the beginning of 2019, a few months after the hospital suddenly closed.

And over the last few months, the rural hospital closures, the opioid crisis and the rising rates of Covid-19 have created “a perfect storm” that hit Tennessee.

“People want change,” he said in a phone interview.

The Democrat proposes expanding Medicaid, lowering the cost of drugs and stabilizing costs.

In June 2019, Alexander introduced a bipartisan bill along with Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, designed to lower health care costs by, for instance, attacking surprise billing.

“But it never even got a vote from Mitch McConnell’s Senate, so I look forward to bringing that back up,” Mackler said.

The way he tells it, Mackler shuttered his law practice after the planes hit the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 and he flew Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq. After that, he became a JAG officer prosecuting sexual assault cases in the military, mostly at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox. These days, he serves in the Tennessee National Guard.

Mackler said if he were senator, he’d be looking for judges who are qualified and unbiased. He’s worried that the rule of law is currently under attack and he believes the Senate should return to letting the American Bar Association assist in vetting candidates.

The candidates running in the GOP primary, Mackler said, would “be rubber stamps for the president.”

While Hagerty and Sethi have taken to the road, appearing at events across the state, Mackler said their campaigns have been an “expensive, white-hot race to the bottom.”

“Leaders put the health and safety of the people they seek to serve ahead of their own self-interest,” Mackler said.

He’s been running a virtual campaign, having remote conversations with voters.

As the early voting period wraps up in Tennessee, the Secretary of State’s Office reported that 473,000 voters cast early ballots or voted by mail as of Friday morning – about 293,000 in the Republican primary and 173,000 in the Democratic primary.

Alexander, whose office declined a request for an interview, issued a statement noting that Hagerty had the support of Trump and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, which should help the former ambassador next Thursday.  

But he shied away from endorsing anyone for his seat. 

“My experience has been Tennesseans didn’t elect me to tell them how to vote,” he said.