Major Upset in the Tennessee Gubernatorial Primary Hints Populism Is Alive and Well

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee campaigns Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee campaigns Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)


Conventional wisdom had the race to succeed term-limited Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam a two-person contest between Representative Diane Black and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd. While Black and Boyd spent millions on ads attacking each other and, as far as I can tell, offering no coherent vision for the future, construction executive and political newcomer, Bill Lee, was running a tough campaign that was beneath the media radar.

“I have lived here all my life, and I can’t recall a candidate for governor ever putting on an event like this in our city.” Ricky D. Jones was speaking of republican candidate for governor Bill Lee’s 100th Town Hall held in Fairview Tuesday night.

Ricky D. Jones, who is seeking re-election to the Williamson County Commission, said, “He’s not doing this (running for governor) for money. He’s doing it because he’s got a servant’s heart.”

Addressing the recent negative ad attacks, Lee said, “Those ads reveal a lot more truth about the person running the ad than the person in the ad. A person willing to deceive – to say anything and do anything – to get elected. I don’t think that’s what Tennesseans want in a governor.”

Lee started his campaign visiting 95 counties in 95 days, followed by a Tractor Tour, Faith in Tennessee Tour, then the 100th Tennessee Town Hall in 100 days on Tuesday night in Fairview. Today, the campaign started a two-day Roadmap to Victory Tour with stops in Memphis, Jackson, Franklin, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Jonesborough and Van Buren County.

One hundred town hall meetings in one hundred days is hard work. And a personal endorsement from a trusted local official has a lot more impact than attack ads.

Two weeks ago, Lee suddenly shot to the top of the polls catching everyone by surprise and making him the target of attack ads.

We’re going to nominate the next Republican for governor. It means we look at the candidates’ records, including Bill Lee. All that talking, he left a few things out. That he was state president of a group that lobbied for amnesty for illegals. Donated to disgraced liberal Democrat Mayor Megan Barry, who supported sanctuary cities. And Bill Lee didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016. It’s our vote. We deserve to know a candidates’ record. Don’t you think?”

In the end, it wasn’t all that close:

From Axios

What does this mean? I’m not an authority on Tennessee politics but it seems to me that the major takeaway here is that the populist fire that was lit in 2010 is still burning strong in Tennessee. Black’s endorsement by Pence probably meant less than Trump’s appearance at Marsha Blackburn’s rally in Nashville and pointedly not endorsing anyone. I can’t imagine Black’s campaign claiming she had Trump’s support when he didn’t endorse her –though it would have been damned easy — did her any favors with voters. With Trump out of the race, voters had a choice between two career politicians Jell-O wrestling and an outsider and successful businessman who seemed to be interested in the voters.

Everyone says that Lee is now the favorite to win the statehouse. We’ll see.

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