Since 1869, a single party hasn’t been able to hold on to the Tennessee governorship for more than two terms. Bill Haslam, the state’s current Republican Governor, will reach the end of his second four-year term at the end of 2018, leaving Democrats hopeful that they can continue Tennessee’s long trend of gubernatorial flip-flopping.
The August primary produced some fairly surprising results. Representative Diane Black (R-TN), a longtime favorite to win the Tennessee governor’s race, lost the primary to Bill Lee, a “business executive” from south of Nashville. Vice President Mike Pence endorsed Black, and she ran as “President Trump’s candidate,” although she never received a formal endorsement from the president himself. Black’s loss indicates that “running close to Trump doesn’t guarantee success, even in a deeply red state like Tennessee.” Her loss also spells bad news for Democrats, who were hoping that her hardline conservatism and unfaltering support for Trump would help power a Democratic victory. Lee, while still a very vocal conservative, is less polarizing than Black, and will likely be a tougher competitor.
Lee is the chairman and former CEO of Lee Company, a construction and service company based in Franklin, Tennessee. He touted his business acumen and created a campaign that “focused on heavily reducing rural poverty, increasing access to addiction recovery services and reducing the state’s recidivism rate.”
Lee largely eschewed discussing major social issues during the primary, but his conservatism is readily apparent. He supports “bathroom bill” policies that would theoretically prevent transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice. He has also been very vocal about his pro-gun beliefs, coming out in favor of arming teachers and allowing people to carry firearms “without going through a state-monitored permitting process.”
Having never held public office, Lee has been called the “definition” of a political outsider. During a time when the political landscape is being radically reshaped by political outsiders, this could work to his advantage. Lee’s personal story is also likely to resonate with many voters: His first wife died in a horseback riding accident in 1999, and Middle Tennessee University Political Science Professor Sekou Franklin said that Lee’s “personal story could give him a certain sensibility with voters that the other candidates don’t have.” Lee has contributed $5.2 million to his own campaign, “mostly through loans.”
Karl Dean, the Democratic candidate, has spent most of his career in public office. He served as a public defender in Nashville before becoming the city’s “top attorney,” and from 2007 to 2015 he was Nashville’s mayor. Dean is running a fairly centrist campaign, decrying “hyper-partisanship” and advocating for pragmatism instead. He does have a fairly progressive record, however, which Republicans will surely criticize in the months leading up to the general election. For example, he supported a nondiscrimination bill for LGBTQ employees of city contractors, opposed a state policy that permitted guns in state parks, and “successfully fought a referendum to make English the official language of Nashville’s Metro government.”
Dean has said that, if elected, his primary focuses will be expanding Medicaid (which Tennessee Republicans have long been opposed to), improving education, and creating jobs in rural Tennessee. Democrats that support Dean will most likely paint him as the most qualified candidate, emphasizing his long career in government. The Tennessee Democratic Party also appeared to compare Lee to President Donald Trump: A statement released by the party on August 3rd read, “We’ve seen what happens when a ‘business outsider’ is elected to office.” The statement also criticized Tennessee’s inaction on Medicaid expansion and Trump’s tariffs, both of which are extremely unpopular among Tennessee farmers. Dean believes that Tennessee is “more moderate than people really understand,” and when asked whether or not he believes he can win in a historically conservative state, he said, “Tennessee has a tradition where every eight years we alternate the party in the governorship.” He has contributed $1.4 million to his campaign, also primarily through loans.
Tennessee is a deeply red state, and many analysts believe that Dean has, at best, a very slim chance of winning. Democrats are hoping that growing, widespread opposition to Trump will trickle down to Tennessee, a state that Trump won with 61 percent of the vote in 2016. With Republicans losing big in recent primaries, however, nothing is out of the question.