By Steve Hunley
Tennessee Republicans made a wise decision in choosing Franklin businessman Bill Lee as their gubernatorial nominee last Thursday.
Lee wasn’t the candidate who spent the most, bought the most television and radio ads, or started out as the preemptive favorite from the beginning. When Lee first announced his candidacy, few people thought he had a chance of winning. The spotlight was focused on Congresswoman Diane Black and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd.
Evidently, Boyd’s strategy of presenting himself as an “outsider” and “conservative businessman” did not resonate with the voters. Unfortunately for Boyd, most Tennessee Republicans thought Bill Lee more authentically fit that description. It may well be that Boyd’s stint in Governor Bill Haslam’s cabinet, along with his vast personal wealth, did not cause most Tennesseans to see him as a political outsider. Instead, Tennessee Republicans opted for the one candidate who literally had no political experience whatever. Facing a sitting congresswoman, the Speaker of the state house, and a well-connected former cabinet member, Bill Lee’s campaign caught fire a few weeks ago. The few polls available showed Lee gaining momentum in the primary, which carried him through election day.
Bill Lee winning the GOP nomination for governor has to be considered an upset and perhaps the campaigns of Diane Black and Randy Boyd made a serious miscalculation in going so heavily negative during the race. There is good reason to believe Tennesseans tired of the negativity during this campaign cycle.
Both Boyd and Black’s campaigns began running negative ads as Bill Lee began to move up in the polls. Lee did not respond in kind, but chose instead to run ads saying negative ads said more about the person running them than the person being attacked.
Lee presented himself as a successful businessman, cattle farmer and master plumber. That alone set him apart from his rivals for the Republican nomination and it worked. Lee also was not afraid to stress his own conservative beliefs and Christian faith in such a way as to make both believable.
All four of the major candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination were credible candidates—Diane Black, Randy Boyd, Beth Harwell and Bill Lee—but Bill Lee’s voice may have connected more with the majority of the voters. Tennessee Republicans may also have just nominated the one candidate who will be the most difficult for former Nashville mayor Karl Dean to defeat in the general election.
Since 1966, gubernatorial administrations have floated back and forth between the Democratic and Republican parties and Bill Lee appears well poised to break that pattern. The nomination of Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn is also historic. Blackburn is the first woman to be nominated by one of the major parties for the U. S. Senate in Tennessee.
Republicans in Tennessee have nominated what looks to be a very strong duo in Bill Lee and Marsha Blackburn.