NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has won his reelection contest, keeping Republican control of a top statewide office that hasn’t been in Democratic hands for more than a decade.
Lee defeated Democrat Jason Martin on Tuesday to clinch another four-year term in office. The election comes amid a first term that has seen 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.
Lee, a businessman and farmer, cruised through the primary without a Republican opponent, then sealed the win over Martin without agreeing to any debates. Capitalizing on a huge campaign cash advantage in a Republican state, Lee released TV ads before the election in which he praised the work of his administration.
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.”
“You turn on the TV today, and it feels like the world’s gone a little crazy — but not in Tennessee,” Lee said in the ad.
He mostly shrugged off and declined to acknowledge the challenge from Martin, a critical care physician who entered the race due to his opposition to Lee’s largely hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin’s focus shifted as voter concerns over the pandemic lessened. Martin blasted Lee’s signing of an abortion ban that shifts the burden to the doctor to convince a criminal court that an abortion was needed to save the mother’s life or spare her from irreversible, severe impairment.
One of Lee’s campaign ads, in turn, appeared to speak specifically to women, mentioning women’s health care offerings under his administration, additional TennCare benefits for new mothers and efforts aimed at foster care and adoption.
Lee’s win came after he 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 right to carry handguns in public without a permit and a six-week abortion ban, both of which he signed into law.
When Lee disagreed with an increasingly conservative Republican legislature, he never vetoed a bill. He occasionally let some become law without signing them to signal his unease, including on a bill that requires serving full or 85% prison sentences for certain crimes.
Lee pushed toward reelection even as he revealed in August that his wife Maria had been diagnosed with lymphoma, saying her prognosis was good and it was a treatable form of cancer. In his first election, Lee spoke often about losing his first wife in a deadly horseback riding accident. His interactions with victims after deadly tornadoes, flooding and other catastrophes further showcased his empathetic, one-on-one approach.
Lee’s reelection is in keeping with Tennessee history. The last time a sitting governor was defeated was in 1938, when Prentice Cooper beat then-Gov. Gordon Browning in the Democratic primary, though from 1953 to 1978, governors had to sit out for a term before seeking another run, according to Tennessee legislative historian Eddie Weeks.
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.