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Hotly contested Republican U.S. Senate race highlights Thursday’s primary ballot in Tennessee

Voters in East Tennessee will also pick a successor for retiring GOP U.S. Rep. Phil Roe

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

NASHVILLE (CFP) — Tennessee Republicans will decide a contentious battle for an open U.S. Senate seat in Thursday’s primary election, settling what has become a proxy battle between libertarian and establishment voices within the national GOP.

Also, Thursday, 14 Republicans are competing for the nomination in the 1st U.S. House District in East Tennessee, with the winner a prohibitive favorite to take over the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Roe.

Poll opening times in the Volunteer State vary by county; polls close in the Eastern time zone at 8 p.m. and at 7 p.m. in the Central time zone.

Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi

In the Senate race, Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is locked in a tight race for the Republican nomination against Manny Sethi, a Nashville orthopedic trauma surgeon.

Thirteen other Republicans are also in the race, including former Shelby County commissioner and unsuccessful 2018 U.S. House candidate George Flinn, who has poured $5 million of his own money into the contest.

The seat is open because of the retirement of Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who has held it for the past 18 years.

Hagerty, the establishment choice, has put together a collection of disparate endorsements that includes not only President Donald Trump, his son Donald Jr., and Fox News host Sean Hannity, but also support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Sethi has countered with endorsements of his own from U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, Gun Owners of America, and the anti-abortion Tennessee Heartbeat Coalition.

Hagerty’s campaign has branded Sethi as a “Never Trumper” and highlighted the fact that he was a finalist for a White House fellowship under former President Barack Obama. Sethi has returned the favor by noting that Hagerty gave large campaign contributions to Romney’s presidential campaigns and served as a delegate for Jeb Bush during his 2016 race against Trump.

Tennessee does not have primary runoffs, so whichever candidate emerges from Thursday’s vote with a plurality will be the party’s nominee.

The Democratic contest features six candidates, with Nashville attorney James Mackler, who is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, seen as the favorite.

Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 30 years, and the nominee who emerges from the Republican will be a prohibitive favorite in November, although Mackler has raised more than $2 million so far.

In the 1st District, which stretches from the Tri-Cities west toward Knoxville, the Republican primary has turned into a 14-candidate free-for-all.

The fundraising leader in the race is Diana Harshbarger, a Kingsport pharmacist who has raised nearly $1.5 million. She’s followed by Josh Gapp, a Knoxville pathologist who had initially run in the Senate primary until Roe announced his retirement, and former Kingsport Mayor John Clark.

Also in the race are State Senator Rusty Crowe from Johnson City; State Rep. David Hawk from Greeneville; State Rep. Timothy Hill from Blountville; and former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden.

The winner of the Republican contest will face Democrat Blair Walsingham, a farmer from Hawkins County. The Republican nominee will be the prohibitive favorite in the state’s most Republican district, which the party has held continuously for 140 years.

Uniquely among states, Tennessee holds its primary elections on Thursdays, rather than Tuesdays, although the general election in November will be held on a Tuesday as it is in the rest of the country.

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