NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jason Martin has spent more than two years trying to get Gov. Bill Lee's attention in Tennessee — first, as the critical care doctor urging more action against the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, as the Democratic nominee for governor trying to knock the Republican out of office.
To date, Lee has yet to acknowledge he even has a challenger in his quest for reelection. The two haven't talked, according to Martin, and that's unlikely to change before Election Day.
Lee, riding consistently strong polls in a state that favors the GOP, is taking a calculated approach to winning a second term and has paid no attention to his Democratic opponent. He has put a big fundraising advantage to work by deploying statewide TV ads that tout his first four years in office, while not mentioning that Tennesseans have a choice on the ballot. He has declined to debate Martin, saying he's too busy running the state.
"The Republican strategy is, 'don't let anyone get to your right.' (Lee) was able to avoid opposition in the primary and now he's expecting an easy reelection victory," said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Lee sidestepped a primary challenge with a series of moves on time-tested conservative issues, including backing a permitless handgun carry law and signing off on expansive abortion restrictions. On fiery topics that have taken off more recently, he has signed laws that target transgender people, shifted his attention to the hot midterm topic of crime over his priorities for criminal justice reform, and approved restrictions against some discussions on race and sexuality in schools.
"Parents now have a say in what's taught and what isn't," Lee said in a campaign ad. "And kids are learning valuable skills, without the divisive politics."
Martin, meanwhile, said he hopes to make the kind of inroads in rural Tennessee that have long defied state Democrats, leaving them without a seat in the governor's office for more than a decade. He said he thinks the path to winning the governor's race "goes through red Tennessee, goes right through rural communities."
"I think previous campaigns have focused really a lot of resources and training on the cities, and Democrats are going to try to run the numbers up in the cities. The math isn't there," Martin told the Nashville Rotary Club recently. "You can't win with a message that only appeals to the big five cities in the state of Tennessee."
Martin initially got in the race criticizing the way Lee has handled the COVID-19 outbreak in Tennessee, where a statewide mask mandate was never enacted. Martin has since shifted away from making that his main focus.
To date, researchers from Johns Hopkins University says Tennessee has seen roughly 28,000 COVID-19 related deaths. As of late October, that death count is the 12th highest in the country overall and sixth per capita.
While speaking in front of the crowd, Martin admitted that a year ago he would not have said the gubernatorial race was winnable for a Democrat in such a ruby red state. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion changed things, he said. Particularly, Martin is hoping to win over Tennessean voters discovering to their dismay that the state's strict abortion ban doesn't explicitly exempt those performed to save a mother's life.
To date, Lee has downplayed concerns that the ban's current language surrounding exemptions has sparked confusion and fear from the medical community. As a vocal opponent to abortion, Lee has maintained that doctors can use "their best judgment" to save the life of the mother.
"My sense and understanding from the law is that does exist now," Lee told reporters earlier this summer.
Martin says Lee's statement means one of two things, either of which would be "painful."
"One, he doesn't know what he signed. Or two, he's not being truthful with you. And either way, in my opinion, he's unqualified to be governor," Martin said.
Lee has also attracted criticism after he declined to rebut comments made by Hillsdale President Larry Arnn, who claimed earlier this year that teachers "are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges" during a reception the Republican attended. Lee has since distanced himself from Hillsdale's attempt to expand their affiliated charter schools in Tennessee but has remained a vocal school choice advocate.
Martin also said that, as governor, he would sue to challenge a law that requires lawmakers' approval to expand Medicaid in Tennessee under former President Barack Obama's health care law. Lee has opposed Medicaid expansion, saying the current program is flawed and that adding more money wouldn't address those problems. His administration has spearheaded an overhaul to how Tennessee's Medicaid program is funded and run. President Joe Biden's administration has asked for changes to the program, which former President Donald Trump's team approved.
Lee defeated a Democratic opponent by 21 percentage points in 2018 after emerging from a bruising Republican primary. The last Democratic governor in Tennessee was Phil Bredesen, who served from 2003 until 2011.