Of the 35 U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in the 2020 general election, the race to replace Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander has largely been overshadowed, with attention riveted on Alabama, Arizona, Colorado and other states experts say are most likely to flip, determining which party will control the U.S. Senate.
But the showdown in “the Volunteer State” — between a Black woman candidate who recently made history and a businessman who chaired one of Trump’s 2016 fundraising committees — presents voters with perhaps the starkest choice between U.S. Senate candidates.
The opponents vying for the seat held by Alexander since 2002 are both making their first run for political office
A Memphis native with an environmental justice and labor organizing background, Bradshaw has a grassroots donor base and refuses money from corporate political action committees, known as PACs.
Hagerty celebrates his roots growing up on a Gallatin farm. He’s launched a career in finance, working at private equity firms amid stints in the George H.W. Bush administration and cabinet of former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, before chairing the Trump Victory Fund in 2016. Trump then appointed Hagerty as U.S. Ambassador to Japan and he returned to private equity in 2019.
During the most recent quarter of campaign contributions reported, from July 18 to Sept. 30, Hagerty’s campaign was infused with at least $38,000 from corporate PACs involved in finance. Another $36,000 in contributions came from corporations reliant on fossil fuel or nuclear waste, according to Federal Elections Commission filings.
Other large donations were made by ideologically aligned committees, such as the National Rifle Association and a PAC helmed by U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who shares Hagerty’ arch-conservative views.
“Stand with Trump. Stop illegal immigration. Build the Wall. Confirm Constitutionalist judges,” Hagerty’s website declares.
Overall, the FEC data shows Hagerty had three times as much cash on hand, $1.9 million, including an $800,000 bank loan; compared to $630,000 reported by Bradshaw.
It’s familiar territory for Bradshaw, who was outspent by a primary opponent with $1.9 million and emerged the upset winner after spending around $22,000. The triumph made history, with Bradshaw becoming the first Black woman in Tennessee to run for U.S. Senate on a major-party ticket.
“People are more powerful than money,” she said, describing the efforts of her campaign volunteers at field offices around Tennessee.
“I know how to spend a dollar to stretch. I’m a single mom and the way that I spend money is not the way a rich man does,” Bradshaw said.
Democratic primary: Marquita Bradshaw won the Democratic primary
Republican primary: Bill Hagerty wins Tennessee’s bitter Republican US Senate primary
Hagerty’s staff said his schedule didn’t allow for a phone interview. But spokesperson Savannah Newhouse said the funds he’s raised reflect shared sentiments across the state.
“Tennessee values are conservative values,” Newhouse said. “Now more than ever we need a strong leader like Bill Hagerty to help get our economy going again, support our law enforcement officers and continue to hold China accountable.”
Hagerty also invoked China, in regards to COVID-19 response, at a campaign event in Clarksville Wednesday.
He did not delve into any domestic policies designed to combat the virus, according to the Leaf-Chronicle.
“The Trump Administration is doing a great job preparing for the worst, to make sure the worst does not happen,” Hagerty’s website states.
Bradshaw said she’s working to bring Tennesseans together, “to survive during this pandemic and actually rebuild something better than what was before. That’s what’s important. That we have a plan to move forward.”
“We’re seeing the long-term effects of the economic decline from this pandemic, including millions of job losses that are now permanent,” Bradshaw said.
“It’s not a time to point fingers, it’s time to come with solutions,” she said.
Green jobs and corporate oversight vs. deregulation
Appointed to the White House Economic Recovery task force by Trump, the Nashville-based Hagerty contends deregulation spurs economic growth.
Fossil fuel companies Exxon Valdez and Marathon; multiple logistics companies, including FedEx; and coal and nuclear waste interests have donated to his campaign.
Bradshaw says a new era of economic growth requires the opposite approach — with jobs and new or retro-fitted infrastructure created by The Green New Deal, which also seeks to require companies to decrease or remediate the pollution they generate.
Among cities that have showed her campaign the most support, Knoxville has notably supplied the second largest pool of donations to Bradshaw, behind Nashville. Hundreds of Tennessee Valley Authority workers exposed to toxic coal ash in the Knoxville region have been waging a battle for accountability for years.
In an emailed statement, FedEx spokesperson John Scruggs says the Memphis-based company has a long history of participating in the political process, ”with the goal of promoting and protecting the economic future of the company, our employees and shareholders.”
He noted that the FedEx PAC has supported politicians on both sides of the aisle and makes all political contributions and expenditures in compliance with applicable laws and reporting requirements.
The FedEx PAC contributed $10,000 to Hagerty’s campaign. Individual donations from FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, his wife Diane Smith and five other FedEx executives cumulatively brought in an additional $25,000 approximately as well.
Bradshaw’s support, outside of a handful of largely local Democratic Party contributions, comes from individuals.
Amy Garrison, a Nashville resident who describes herself as an active voter, is among Bradshaw’s top donors. She and her husband have each contributed the maximum allowed by individuals, $2,800, to Bradshaw in the senate race.
“Campaigns should be about ideas,” Garrison said. ”Marquita Bradshaw is an underdog, particularly financially, and her opponent won’t debate her on ideas. She deserves to be heard and that requires money.”
The lone debate scheduled between the opponents was canceled in early October, with the station set to host it, WKRN-TV, citing “logistical difficulties,” according to the Associated Press.
Garrison said she was also motivated by concerns over Hagerty. ”I am very alarmed by her opponent’s intentional divisive rhetoric,” Garrison said. ”That rhetoric is dangerous and is not representative of the Tennessee I know and love.”
Two visions of ‘America’s core principles’
In addition to the Green New Deal, Bradshaw calls for criminal justice reform and “equitable access to healthcare, a clean and safe environment, and a public education system that serves all children.”
Her platform also includes a call to overturn the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 which enabled special interests to spend unlimited funds on elections.
“I’m only beholden to working class people and the voters,” Bradshaw said.
Hagerty has received the maximum amount, $10,000, from the Citizens United PAC.
A campaign spokesperson declined to provide comment on Hagerty’s corporate campaign contributions and stated commitment to “work with President Donald Trump to drain the swamp.”
Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders have endorsed Bradshaw’s campaign, while Hagerty’s most high-profile endorsement comes straight from the White House.
The businessman has the “blessing and endorsement” of President Trump, according to his Senate campaign site. Hagerty most recently served as the ambassador to Japan, a role in which he was appointed by Trump. Before that, Hagerty was a commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, from 2011 to 2014.
Supporting Trump is a pillar of Hagerty’s campaign, appearing throughout his website, which also equates Democratic policies to a ”socialist agenda” that pose a “threat,” multiple times.
Two U.S. Senators in the Mid-South have also endorsed Hagerty: Marsha Blackburn and Tom Cotton (R-Ark).
Bradshaw said her campaign’s been building a grassroots movement across Tennessee, “that’s neither Republican, Democrat nor socialist” but about “America’s core principals.”
“We are bringing people together. We’re not using fear. We’re not using racism. We’re not using deceit,” she said.
The point of commonality among her supporters, Bradshaw said: ”We have ultra-rich men in the U.S. Senate and working people need a voice.”
Sarah Macaraeg is an award-winning journalist who writes investigations, features and the occasional news story for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at email@example.com, 901-529-2889 or on Twitter @seramak.