NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Lee breezed by without a primary challenger in Tennessee, built up a huge campaign cash advantage and has largely ignored his Democratic opponent, Jason Martin, en route to the general election.
Lee's approach in Tennessee, where there hasn't been a Democratic governor in more than a decade, goes in front of voters Tuesday after a first term in tumultuous times: a global pandemic, inflation, uprisings over racial injustice across the country, mass shootings nationwide and the Supreme Court's end to the constitutional right to abortion. His popularity has remained high.
Lee, a businessman and farmer from Franklin, didn't agree to any debates with Martin in the leadup to Tuesday's election. In recent weeks, Lee's campaign peppered the airwaves with TV ads in which he praised the work of his administration's first four years.
Lee pointed to economic growth in the state, tax rates and his focus on skilled trades in his main ad, saying he would be "honored to serve again."
Martin, a critical care physician from Nashville, entered the race to push back against Lee's largely hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tennessee has seen more than 28,000 COVID-19 related deaths, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University. That death count is the 12th highest in the country overall and the sixth highest per capita as of late October.
Martin's focus shifted as voter concerns over the pandemic lessened. He pointed to Lee's embrace of Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn and the affiliated charter schools he wanted in Tennessee, despite Arnn being taped making comments disparaging teachers. Martin also blasted Lee's signing of an abortion ban that shifts the burden to the doctor, if charged, to convince a criminal court that an abortion was needed to save the mother's life or spare her from irreversible, severe impairment.
Lee's campaign, in turn, appeared to speak specifically to women in another ad, mentioning women's health care offerings under his administration, additional TennCare benefits for new mothers, and efforts aimed at foster care and adoption.
Lee was the first incumbent governor in about three decades to have no primary opponent. He avoided an intraparty challenge in August in part by leading on legislation on some of the most fiery socially conservative topics, including the permit-less carry of handguns in public and a six-week abortion ban, both of which he signed into law. He has leaned into others, as well, including laws he signed that target transgender people, seek to limit certain school library content and restrict some discussions on race and sexuality in classrooms.
The last time a sitting governor was defeated was in 1938, when Prentice Cooper beat then-Gov. Gordon Browning in the Democratic primary. From 1953 to 1978, governors had to sit out for a term before seeking another run, according to Tennessee legislative historian Eddie Weeks.
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. The popular two-term governor mounted a Democratic campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2018, but lost by 11 percentage points to Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.