GOP Senate hopeful serves with his donors on White House panel

By: - May 8, 2020 1:20 pm
Screen shot of a Bill Hagerty campaign ad

Screen shot of Bill Hagerty’s campaign ad

WASHINGTON — Tennessee Senate candidate Bill Hagerty is serving on a White House economic advisory panel alongside several of his highest-profile campaign donors. 

Hagerty — who served as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Japan until last July — was named by the president in April as a “thought leader” on the panel aimed at reopening the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Other members of that panel have contributed at least $28,000 to Hagerty’s Senate campaign, records show. His donors also include a member of Trump’s legal team, a former Republican secretary of state and members of the politically connected Frist family. 

Hagerty had raised $7.1 million before the end of March, outraising his opponents ahead of the crowded primary slated for Aug. 6, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. His latest filing shows he took a $2.5 million loan from Pinnacle Bank, where he previously served on the board. His GOP opponent has run ads attacking Hagerty as “entitled” for taking out the loan, the Associated Press reported

Hagerty scored Trump’s early endorsement in the race for the seat, which will be open next year after the retirement of Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. In a tweet last July, Trump referred to him as “Tennessee loving Bill Hagerty” and said the Senate hopeful has his “Complete & Total Endorsement!”

Trump’s move to appoint Haggerty to his “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” last month drew criticism from James Mackler, the Democratic frontrunner in the Tennessee Senate race. 

Hagerty is “the only one on the task force that’s running for elected office, and let’s be clear: he is not there to be an independent voice,” Mackler said in a video posted on Twitter earlier this month. “He secured his place on the task force by proving that he can be counted on to rubber stamp whatever decision these corporate special interests want him to make, which is why those same corporate special interests want him installed in the U.S. Senate.” 

Hagerty’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

At least five of the other members of the economic advisory board donated to Hagerty’s campaign prior to the board’s formation. 

Art Laffer of Nashville, a former Reagan economic adviser, contributed $5,600 to Hagerty in September, including the maximum allowed $2,800 to the primary campaign and another $2,800 for the general election. 

Sam Hazen, CEO of Nashville-based ACA Healthcare, donated $5,600 to the campaign last September. 

Another member of the White House panel, Wayne Smith, contributed $5,600 to Hagerty last October. Smith is CEO of Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems Inc. 

Ray Washburne, the co-founder of M Crowd Restaurant Group, contributed $5,600 last September. Ross Perot, Jr., a Dallas real estate developer and the son of the late presidential candidate Ross Perot, donated $5,600 to Hagerty’s campaign. 

Ross Perot Jr. (courtesy Vanderbilt University)
Ross Perot Jr. (courtesy Vanderbilt University)

The political action committees of corporations and trade groups whose leaders are on the White House panel have also shelled out at least $17,000 for Hagerty’s campaign. 

They include the Bank of America PAC ($2,500 in December), the Community Health Systems PAC ($5,000 in October), Crowley Maritime Corp. PAC ($1,000 in December), International Franchise Association Franchising PAC ($1,000 in December), Pernod Ricard USA PAC ($2,500 in December), Southern Company Employees PAC ($1,500 in December), and Deere & Company PAC ($5,000 in December).   

Corporate PACs are funded by voluntary contributions from employees. 

Influential donors

Other prominent GOP donors are also supporting Hagerty’s Senate bid. 

His contributors include Jordan Sekulow, a member of Trump’s legal team and the son of Jay Sekulow, a prominent member of Trump’s impeachment defense team. Jordan Sekulow had contributed $700 to Hagerty’s campaign by December. 

James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state to President George H. W. Bush and Treasury Secretary during the Reagan administration, contributed $3,000 to Hagerty’s campaign. Baker is now a partner at the law firm Baker Botts.   

James A. Baker III (courtesy of Baker Botts)
James A. Baker III (courtesy of Baker Botts)

Thomas Frist Jr., the brother of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), donated $2,800 to Hagerty’s primary bid. Frist is a co-founder of HCA Healthcare and was ranked in 2017 as the wealthiest person in Tennessee. His wife, Patricia, donated $2,200 to Hagerty’s campaign. 

Their son, investor Thomas Frist III, donated another $5,600 to Hagerty’s campaign. His wife, Julie, also donated $5,600. 

Kelcy Warren, the billionaire chairman and CEO of the Dallas-based pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, donated $5,600 to Hagerty, the filings show. 

Dallas real estate investor and prolific GOP donor Harlan Crow contributed $5,600 to Hagerty’s campaign. 

A crowded field

Manny Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon also seeking the GOP nomination, has raised $3.7 million so far, according to his most recent report. That includes $1.9 million he loaned to his campaign. 

The many other GOP candidates in the race trail Hagerty and Sethi in fundraising. 

Memphis doctor George Flinn raised nearly $1.6 million this cycle — but all but $75 of that came in the form of loans from the candidate himself.  

The Democratic frontrunner Mackler, a Nashville attorney and former Army helicopter pilot, has raised $1.6 million so far this cycle, his latest report shows. 

National Democrats have backed Mackler in the primary; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed him in January. 

He’s the only Democratic candidate in the race who has filed a fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission. 

Mackler — who slammed Hagerty on Twitter this month for being “funded by corporate PACs & special interest cash” — says he isn’t accepting donations from corporate political action committees. 

The open Senate seat in Tennessee hasn’t attracted the national attention that some other races are getting this election cycle as Democrats are playing offense in some contested races with the hopes of clinching the Senate majority. 

No Democrat has represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate since Harlan Mathews stepped down in late 1994. Mathews had been appointed to serve the remainder of Al Gore’s term after Gore was sworn in as vice president. 

The last time a Tennessee Senate seat was open, when GOP Sen. Bob Corker was retiring in 2018, Republican Marsha Blackburn beat former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen by about 11 points. 

The nonpartisan political newsletter Inside Elections rates the race as “solid Republican.” Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter, said Hagerty is in good shape heading into the primary. 

“When there’s an open seat race and one candidate has more money and the support of President Trump in a Republican Primary, I think those are two weapons you want to have on your side,” he said. 

He doesn’t expect Democrats to invest significant outside money into the race, he added. “If they win, it will be because of a much larger political shift,” he said. 


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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.