After 1st term, Governor Lee unopposed in GOP primary election

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nearly four years ago, Bill Lee surprised political insiders when the top political candidate survived a bruised and crowded $45 million GOP primary for governor of Tennessee. He sailed to win the most elected state seat a few months later.

Now, the Republican businessman is enjoying a radically different re-election race, with much more leeway.

Despite criticism from within his own political party, Democrats and advocates from multiple sides of the political spectrum, Lee faces no challengers in the August GOP primary. The state’s Republican Party ejected two lesser-known opponents from the ballot.

That means he will likely head to the November general election in a state that has elected Republicans to the highest elected offices for more than 15 years. He will face whoever wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where candidates include physician Jason Martin, Memphis councilman JB Smiley Jr. and community lawyer Carnita Atwater.

Lee’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

A Tennessee governor hasn’t avoided facing a primary opponent since Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1990. Prior to that, former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander ran unopposed in the 1982 primary, according to the historian. Legislative Eddie Weeks. Both won four more years in office.

Lee navigated a first term marred by a global pandemic and drew backlash from conservative circles for the early economic shutdowns that were common across the country. Ultimately, he opposed a statewide mask mandate and came to the defense of those who refuse the vaccine, as GOP officials have largely done.

“Bill Lee was popular during his time as governor. It started in the 60s, but it’s kind of gone down now to the mid-50s, which most governors would immediately covet,” said John Geer, dean of Vanderbilt University who co-leads the policy poll. school public. .

Lee sought to crush any serious opposition brewing within the party by aligning himself with an increasingly conservative GOP-dominated legislature, especially on social issues. He pushed for a sweeping anti-abortion ban and a law on carrying handguns without a license, and endorsed other socially conservative policies, including those targeting LGBTQ people.

Lawmakers, at times, have boosted or undermined some of the governor’s major initiatives, including a push to make Juneteenth a holiday. On some occasions, Lee also worked around their opposition, including getting the bust of former Confederate general and former Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest removed from the Capitol.

Notably, Lee was forced to scrap plans to offer paid family leave to state employees after receiving a cold reception from Republican lawmakers. He also received heavy criticism from those same GOP leaders when the governor refused to stop resettling refugees in 2019 when given the option by former President Donald Trump.

“He’s in the enviable position where it’s been clear for some time that he wasn’t going to face a serious election threat, so he has the ability to pursue the policies he wanted to pursue, instead to worry about the electoral consequences of certain politicians,” Geer said.

Lee has also been on the ground in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes that passed through several parts of the state. He refused to remove death row inmates while Tennessee rushed to one of the fastest states to kill inmates. Earlier this year, he suspended all executions over failures to test for lethal injection drugs and ordered an independent investigator to investigate the extent of the state’s failures to follow its own sentencing protocol. dead.

Unlike some Republican predecessors, Lee refused to use a powerful tool – his veto. Lee maintained that stance even as Republican leaders passed a measure this year to lengthen criminal sentences by requiring inmates to serve full sentences for various crimes. Lee’s administration allowed the bill to go into effect despite its efforts to divert more people from state prisons and expand services for those released from incarceration.

However, his office wields another powerful tool: the executive privilege to keep government records confidential. Lee promised to review Tennessee’s public records and open meeting laws when he took office, but to date no action has been taken.

One of Lee’s major victories in his early terms was rewriting how Tennessee funds its public schools. Lee’s administration has spearheaded an effort that sets a fixed amount per student, a pattern mirrored by nearly 40 other states.

Democratic lawmakers criticized the move as bypassing the bigger problem of better funding for the state’s education system, but supporters argue the new system simplified a confusing and outdated funding algorithm.

Meanwhile, Lee enacted a ban on abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy – before many women know they are pregnant. The move came as Lee has repeatedly emphasized his opposition to abortion. The ban only came into effect late last month, however, following the Supreme Court’s ruling ending the constitutional right to process.

Lee scored another victory earlier this year when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that its contentious 2019 Education Voucher Act, which was passed by the slimmest margins, did not violate the state constitution. State. The law, which allows families to use taxpayer money in private schools, has still not been implemented, but Lee and other school choice advocates say they hope it will. will be soon.

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