In Tennessee, an insurgent candidate crawled out of the trenches where he was suffering a double-digit deficit against his contenders just one month ago to win the Republican gubernatorial primary on Thursday. Conservative businessman and Washington outsider Bill Lee took on a field of candidates with more money and deeper political ties, absorbing a surge of support in the final weeks of the primary to win his party’s nomination.
And despite his reluctance to favor one candidate over the other in the primary, President Donald Trump finally offered his “total and enthusiastic [e]ndorsement” of Lee in a Friday morning tweet.
Congratulations to Bill Lee of Tennessee on his big primary win for Governor last night. He ran a great campaign and now will finish off the job in November. Bill has my total and enthusiastic Endorsement!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2018
All-in for Bill Lee
Although he enjoyed a double-digit advantage over Hillary Clinton in Tennessee in the 2016 presidential race and currently commands a 56 percent approval rating in the state, Trump stayed out of the heated gubernatorial primary in the Volunteer State.
But the White House wasn’t completely disengaged from the race. Trump praised the early favorite, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, and appeared in public with her on several occasions.
Black also enjoyed Vice President Mike Pence’s endorsement, who praised her support for the president’s agenda and her commitment to pro-life reforms.
.@DianeBlackTN is running for Governor of TN & a strong supporter of #MAGA agenda of tax cuts, military $$ & a champion of right to life policies. There are great candidates running but Diane has been my friend for years, we served together in the House, & she has my support!
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) July 27, 2018
Despite his refusal to take a strong stand for any one candidate, Trump’s influence on the primary was unmistakably critical. Each of the four contenders — Lee, Black, State House Speaker Beth Harwell, and former state economic development chief Randy Boyd — invested an enormous amount of energy and money toward convincing the electorate that they were the most committed to Trump’s agenda.
Throughout his campaign to replace Gov. Bill Haslam, who will reach his term limit this fall, Lee was at an overwhelming disadvantage. While he spent approximately $7 million on the primary, Black spent twice that number and Boyd tripled his spending.
But while his opponents hurled insults at one another in a particularly unscrupulous and personal campaign, Lee quietly campaigned throughout the state, touting his Christian values and lack of political connections.
Lee must have broken through to voters, because in the final weeks of the campaign, he saw his support soar among voters. His opponents subsequently issued a series of negative campaign advertisements on the eve of the primary vote that suggested that Lee’s company fired a National Guard soldier because of a pending deployment — but it was too late.
Too little, too late
With 99.5 percent of precincts reporting early Friday morning, Lee earned 36.6 percent of the vote, Boyd took home 24.4 percent, and Black came in third with 23 percent.
LIVE SPEECH: Bill Lee wins GOP Primary in Tennessee Governor’s race.
Lee will face former Nashville mayor Karl Dean in November.
— FoxNashville (@FOXNashville) August 3, 2018
Lee will now face off against former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a moderate Democrat who coasted to victory in his own primary.
Although pundits are calling for a hotly contested election in November, Lee has pledged to stay away from the divisive mud-slinging that may have ultimately hurt his primary opponents’ chances.
“We didn’t go down that road,” Lee said, “and I’m not gonna start now.”