HUNTSVILLE — A Republican primary win by Dr. Manny Sethi might not be quite as big of a political upset in Tennessee as Bill Lee’s primary win was two years ago, but it might not be far from it.
Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who is the son of Indian-American immigrants, is trying to do the same thing Lee: campaign as an outsider and political newcomer, and upset a well-entrenched insider. Lee did it against Randy Boyd in his successful campaign for governor in 2018; Sethi is trying to do it against Bill Hagerty for the U.S. Senate.
Hagerty, like Boyd, has all the name recognition. He was a member of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet, just as Boyd was. He has since served as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. In fact, he resigned that post one year ago specifically to seek the Senate seat being vacated by Lamar Alexander.
Hagerty, who was an advisor to President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s and served as commissioner of the Dept. of Economic & Community Development under Haslam, has more than just name recognition. He has the endorsement of President Donald Trump, in a state that Trump won easily in 2016 and is expected to breeze through again in 2020.
But with less than two weeks remaining before early voting begins, all the indications are that momentum is shifting to Sethi. In fact, his campaign released a new internal poll on Tuesday, just before his RV rolled into the parking lot of the Scott County Office Building in Huntsville, showing that he trails Hagerty by just two points — easily within the margin of error. He was down double digits as recently as a month ago.
As was the case when Lee stunned Boyd in the 2018 GOP primary, the winner of the Sethi-Hagerty race is almost guaranteed victory in the November general election.
During his stop-over in Huntsville on Tuesday, Sethi spent most of his time focused not on Hagerty but on his conservative agenda. He didn’t mention Trump’s endorsement of Hagerty, instead saying that he voted for Trump in the 2016 Republican primary and will always have the president’s back — something he said is crucial during this unique time in America’s history.
“Now more than ever, we have to support the president,” Sethi said. He added that America “is the greatest country on earth. Don’t let anybody, anywhere, ever tell you different. My family’s story, my personal story, is a testament to that.”
But, he added, America does have some pressing issues, chief among them being the rioting that is taking place across the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers that have since been criminally charged and jailed.
“We have this mob that is burning, rioting, looting in the streets,” Sethi said. “If anybody says anything, they call you a racist. And these weak-kneed Republicans in Washington, they won’t take them on. If I am your U.S. Senator, we will take them on.”
Sethi also highlighted several other issues that he said were a priority to him.
On the Covid-19 pandemic, Sethi said he had helped combat the virus on the front lines at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and said the virus had taught him that “we are too reliant on the communist Chinese government. Our gloves, our gowns, our masks, our prescription medications — we’re too reliant on China.” He said America’s China problem dates back to efforts by the nation’s politicians to convince the U.S. that China is a friend. “They’re not our friend. They’re our enemy,” he said. “We have to have a second industrial revolution in this country and bring those things back.”
On Obamacare, Sethi called Republicans’ failed promises to repeal it “the biggest failed political promise in American history.” He added, “They failed because they didn’t have a plan. They couldn’t articulate a plan to the American people.” He highlighted three steps that he said are needed to reform America’s health care system: Pricing transparency, the development of an individual insurance market without the “large hand of government,” and prevention medicine — “we gotta stop paying to treat diseases and start paying to promote wellness and prevention,” he said.
On immigration, Sethi said he is uniquely positioned to address the issue because his parents migrated to the United States from India. These days, he added, his mother gets “so fired up” when the subject of illegal immigration is mentioned. “She’ll say, ‘I stood in line, I waited my turn, so did your father, that’s the American way,'” he said. “Listen, it’s not racist to talk about illegal immigration, and for years now these Republicans in Washington, they don’t want to take on the mob, they don’t want to speak truth to power, they haven’t made meaningful immigration reform. We have to stop illegal immigration.”
Sethi mentioned three things that he said should be done to address illegal immigration: stop chain migration and move to a merit system, build a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, and end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Later, in response to a question from the audience, Sethi doubled down on immigration, saying that he was the son of Indian-born parents, and in rural Coffey County, Tenn. — where his family moved when he was a kid — he was the outsider.
“I had the thick accent, I looked a little different,” he said. “But I was listening to George Jones and Randy Travis and jumping on a tractor. I didn’t know any different. That’s the power of America.” But, he added, “We can’t let these people rip us apart. We have to stand up to them.”
Sethi also addressed several other subjects broached by the audience. On the 2nd Amendment, he said he has a carry permit and “nobody will stand up for the 2nd Amendment more than I will,” adding that so-called “red flag laws” are unconstitutional and should be repealed. On Social Security, he said the system should be modernized, because the “rate of return is way too low.” On education, he said inequalities exist because of the federal government’s failures, adding that education should be a local issue and not a federal issue. “We need to put it back in the hands of local teachers and school boards,” he said. On foreign military involvement and nation-building, he said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be ended and American troops brought home. On the recently-passed CARES Act, he said he would not have supported it, adding that it was the equivalent of loading $2 trillion into helicopters and dumping it out, hoping it wound up in the right places. On the opioid pandemic, he said that the faith-based approach has proven powerful, but the federal government won’t pay for it, leading to a need for innovative ways to fight opioids. On the ongoing racial unrest across the nation, he said that groups like Antifa are “trying to create a race war in this country. They’re trying to tear the soul of this country apart. We cannot give them an inch. Not one inch.”
Sethi’s father died of liver cancer when Sethi was in his early 20s, but he said his father told him that “it doesn’t matter what’s in your bank account; what matters is the difference that you make,” and said his dad’s death led him to find Christ.
“That’s when I came to the Lord,” he said. “And that’s when I realized that like three generations of my family before me, I was gonna become a doctor, too.”
Sethi said that the difference between himself and Hagerty is that Hagerty is “a nice guy,” but is a “hand-picked Tennessee Republican establishment, Washington establishment, insider guy,” and “Mitt Romney’s best friend,” as opposed to himself, who is a “conservative outsider, someone who has given their life to service in Tennessee.
“Forty years ago, you gave these two immigrants from India a chance. You opened your doors to them and look what happened next. I became a doctor, my brother became a doctor, and I am running for the United States Senate. That is the American story, that’s the power of this country.”