Tennessee Republicans, Once Moderate and Genteel, Turn Toxic in the Trump Era

In the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Hagerty first served as a delegate for Jeb Bush, then moved his support to Marco Rubio; only after Mr. Trump sealed the nomination did he come on board with the future president, serving as Tennessee finance chairman of the Trump Victory Committee. Mr. Trump later appointed Mr. Hagerty ambassador to Japan.The president was among those who encouraged Mr. Hagerty to run for Mr. Alexander’s seat, tweeting in July 2019 that Mr. Hagerty was “strong on crime, borders & our 2nd” Amendment and had his “Complete & Total Endorsement!”Mr. Hagerty resigned from his ambassadorship four days later.And when he launched his campaign in September 2019, he did so as a staunch Trump loyalist. He hired the same consultants who ran Marsha Blackburn’s successful, Trump-centered Senate bid in Tennessee in 2018, made the president’s endorsement the cornerstone of his message — and rarely invoked his pre-Trump political experience on the campaign trail.He also began distancing himself from old friends. The day after Mr. Hagerty announced his candidacy in September, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Mr. Romney’s Believe in America PAC contributed the maximum allowed amount to Mr. Hagerty’s campaign — $5,600. Bank records indicate that Mr. Hagerty’s campaign deposited the check. But in October, Mr. Hagerty surprised Mr. Romney by quietly returning the donation in full. (Neither the PAC’s contribution nor Mr. Hagerty’s disbursement of the refund appears in the Hagerty campaign’s filings, a potential violation of campaign finance law. A spokesman for the Hagerty campaign said, “Once we realized it was deposited, we alerted the bank and we reversed the transaction, because we do not share Senator Romney’s liberal, anti-Trump political positions.”)And when Mr. Sethi, trying to position himself as the more authentic ally of the president, called Mr. Hagerty “Mitt Romney’s guy” and erroneously claimed Mr. Romney had endorsed him, Mr. Hagerty attacked his former friend, calling him “indistinguishable from Obama” and one of the “most despised names in Tennessee.”

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