Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam Will Not Run for U.S. Senate

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced on Thursday morning he will not enter the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Haslam, a two-term former Republican governor who said in October 2016 he would not vote for Donald Trump, made his announcement in a letter to all Tennesseans, which was published by the USA Today Network – Tennessee as an exclusive op-ed on Thursday.

“While I think serving in the United States Senate would be a great privilege and responsibility, I have come to the conclusion that it is not my calling for the next period of my life,” Haslam said in the letter.

A moderate Republican who pushed through an unpopular gas tax increase in 2017 during his final term as governor, Haslam maintained high favorability ratings in the state despite his opposition to President Trump’s election. Trump, who won the state in 2016 by 26 points, retains sky-high approval ratings among Tennessee Republicans.

A billionaire by way of his family’s ownership of Pilot Flying J, one of the largest privately held companies in the country, Haslam faced potential campaign scrutiny from opponents over the federal fraud case in which several former company executives, including former company President Mark Hazelwood, were convicted on felony charges.

Haslam’s decision not to enter the race opens the door for a number of potential candidates to compete for the Republican nomination. The winner of that nomination will be determined in a little more than a year in the August 2020 Republican primary. Whoever emerges as the Republican nominee is expected to be the heavy favorite to win the U.S. Senate seat in the November 2020 general election.

Democrats failed to win the other Tennessee U.S. Senate seat in the November 2018 general election when their best statewide candidate–the well-financed former Gov. Phil Bredesen–lost by 11 points to Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

To date, Dr. Manny Sethi, an emergency room physician who works for Vanderbilt, is the only announced candidate for the Republican nomination. Though well regarded among conservatives, Sethi has little name recognition, no track record, and does not have the significant level of personal wealth other potential candidates have to devote to a campaign.

Two names top the list of potential candidates for the Republican nomination: Rep. Mark Green (R-TN-07) and current U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty.

Green was easily elected to succeed now-Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Seventh Congressional District, which covers the suburban counties to the south and west of Nashville, in the November 2018 general election.

A graduate of West Point, Green is a medical doctor who served in Iraq while an officer in the U.S. Army and was nominated by President Trump to serve as Secretary of the Army before withdrawing and running for Congress. Since arriving in Congress in January of this year, Green has been a highly visible and effective supporter of President Trump’s agenda.

A successful entrepreneur, Green has the level of personal wealth needed to fund a multimillion-dollar Senate campaign and is well regarded by the Club for Growth, which is expected to play a role in the 2020 Tennessee Senate race.

Bill Hagerty, the current U.S. ambassador to Japan, has never run for elective office, but he did serve in the Bill Haslam administration as Tennessee’s commissioner of Economic Development. He also played a key role in raising money for President Trump’s 2016 election campaign and was a top official in the president’s transition team.

Hagerty has been described as a candidate who could potentially bridge the gap between the populist conservative Trump-supporting faction of the Tennessee Republican Party and the establishment-friendly Haslam crowd.

A wealthy and successful investment banker, Hagerty also has the level of personal wealth needed to fund a multimillion-dollar Senate campaign.

Unlike Green, however, Hagerty does not have an established strongly conservative voting record since he has never served in public office, and he is also burdened by his support for Mitt Romney, for whom he helped raise money in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Other potential candidates who may consider entering the race for the Republican nomination are Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN-08), Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN-03), and former Rep. Steven Fincher (R-TN-08), who still has $2 million in his campaign account.

President Trump could play a key role in the selection of the Republican nominee. Given the president’s popularity among Tennessee Republicans, if he endorsed one of the potential candidates, it would make it very difficult for any of the other potential candidates to gain traction.

Given the unfavorable electoral map for Republicans in the 2020 U.S. Senate campaigns, both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may favor avoiding a costly and potentially divisive Republican primary battle in Tennessee, when critical resources may be needed in other states to maintain the Republican majority in the Senate after the 2020 elections.

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