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Tennessee Primary: Bill Lee wins GOP nod for governor; Blackburn, Bredesen advance in U.S. Senate race
Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff survives challenge in West Tennessee
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
NASHVILLE (CNN) — Bill Lee, a cattle rancher making his first bid for political office, came from behind to easily beat two politically connected rivals to capture the Republican nomination for Tennessee governor.
As expected, voters in the August 2 primary also set up what will be a pitched U.S. Senate battle between Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, who both easily won their primaries.
Republicans also settled primaries for four GOP-held U.S. House seats, including in West Tennessee’s 8th District, where freshman Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff turned back a self-funding challenger after getting an endorsement from President Donald Trump.
In the governor’s race, Lee, 58, a businessman and rancher from Franklin, took 37 percent of the vote to 24 percent for Randy Boyd, an adviser to outgoing Governor Bill Haslam. Black finished third with 23 percent.
Because Tennessee doesn’t have primary runoffs, Lee won the nomination with a plurality.
“How overwhelming is this?” Lee told jubilant supporters at a victory party in his hometown of Franklin. “I could stand right here and not say anything for a long time.”
Lee started the race a virtual unknown, crisscrossing the state in an RV and telling voters how he was called to public service by the death of his first wife in a horseback riding accident in 2000.
But what may have helped Lee the most were his outsider persona and his decision to refrain from negative attacks on his opponents, even as Black and Boyd both turned their fire on each other and him.
“I’m a man who is not a politician, but I do have a vision for Tennessee to lead this nation,” Lee said. “Thank you for choosing leadership over politics.”
In the fall, Lee will face former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who easily won the Democratic primary.
Black, 67, had once been considered the front-runner in the race but faded as Lee surged from the back of the pack. In the final insult, she lost most of the counties in the 6th District in Middle Tennessee, which she represented in Congress for the last eight years.
Despite Black’s ardent support for Trump and her work getting his tax cuts through Congress, she did not receive a coveted presidential tweet of endorsement, which has buoyed GOP candidates for governor in primaries in Georgia and Florida.
Giving a concession speech to supporters in Nashville, Black noted that this was the first time she had lost an election in 19 races over a 30-year political career.
“Sometimes God just sets a different course for you than what you set for yourself,” she said.
While the primaries narrowed the Democratic and Republican fields, the fall race for governor will still be a crowded affair, as 26 independents have qualified for the ballot, including 13 Libertarians. Because the Libertarian Party does not have official ballot access, the party has no primary, and all 13 candidates will appear on the ballot as independents.
In the U.S. Senate race, Blackburn took 85 percent in the Republican primary, while Bredesen took 92 percent of the Democratic vote. However, overall, she outpolled him by more than 260,000 votes statewide.
Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in the Volunteer State since 1990, when Al Gore won a second term. But recent polling shows a close race between Blackburn and Bredesen, and outside groups are expected to pour millions in a race that could decide control of the Senate.
The seat is being given up by Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who opted not to seek re-election after become one of Trump’s strongest critics in Congress.
Bredesen, 74, served two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011 after serving as mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999. A political moderate, he was the last Democrat to win statewide in Tennessee when he was re-elected governor in 2006.
When Corker announced his retirement in September 2017, Bredesen initially said he would not run for the Senate seat, only to reverse course two months later after lobbying by national Democratic leaders. His entry in the race turned what looked like a long-shot for Democrats into a competitive contest.
Blackburn, 66, from Brentwood, has served in the House since 2003 and is a deputy whip in the House leadership. In her announcement for the Senate, she described herself as a “hardcore card-carrying Tennessee conservative” with a gun in her purse. She has largely been supportive of Trump, who has endorsed her.
Both candidates have so far raised more than $8 million for the Senate battle, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
In U.S. House races, Kustoff was the only incumbent to face a significant challenge from George Flinn, a former Shelby County commissioner who poured more than $3 million of his own money in his fifth try for federal office. But Kustoff dispatched Flinn easily, taking 56 percent of the vote, 16 points ahead of his challenger.
In the Democratic race in the 8th District, the leader is Erika Stotts Pearson, the former assistant general manager of the WNBA’s Memphis Blues, who came in ahead of John Boatner, a social worker from Shelby County. However, only 284 votes separated the candidates, too close to declare a final winner.
In the 2nd District, which includes metro Knoxville and surrounding portions of East Tennessee, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett won the Republican primary with 48 percent of the vote, defeating State Rep. Jimmy Matlock from Lenior City at 36 percent.
The seat opened when U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan retired. Burchett will be a prohibitive favorite in the heavily Republican district.
In the open race for Black’s 6th District seat, the Republican winner was John Rose from Cookeville, a former state agriculture commissioner, who took 41 percent to defeat Bob Corlew, a retired judge from Mount Juliet, with 31 percent.
In November, Rose will face Dawn Barlow, a physician from Livingston who carried 55 percent in the Democratic primary.
In the open race for Blackburn’s 7th District seat, which includes Nashville’s southern suburbs and west-central Tennessee, Democrats picked Justin Canew from College Grove, a digital media producer and two-time contestant on The Amazing Race. He will now face State Senator Mark Green from Ashland City, who was the only Republican to file.
In 2017, Trump nominated Green, a physician and West Point graduate, to be Secretary of the Army, but Green withdrew the nomination amid controversy of some of his previous public statements, including an assertion in 2016 that most psychiatrists believe being transgendered is a “disease.” (The American Psychiatric Association does not classify gender non-conformity as a mental illness).