Donald Trump Endorses Bill Lee for Governor of Tennessee

Tennessee Republican gubernatorial Bill Lee (right) campaigns on July 25 in Mt. Juliet. Lee is projected to win the GOP's nomination.
|Mark Humphrey/AP Photo

On Friday Donald Trump endorsed Bill Lee, winner of Thursday’s GOP gubernatorial primary, for governor of Tennessee. In a tweet, the president said “Bill has my total and enthusiastic Endorsement.”

Lee won a resounding 13 point victory in Thursday’s primary, receiving 37 percent of the votes cast, almost 100,000 more votes than second place finisher, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, who received 24 percent of the vote. Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) finished third with 23 percent of the vote, while Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) finished in fourth place with 15 percent of the vote.

It was the most expensive Republican primary gubernatorial campaign in the state’s history, with the four rivals combining to spend more than $45 million.

Boyd and Black were considered the front-runners for much of the campaign. But the two campaigns spent millions in negative attack ads against each other, which served  to bring down their own approval ratings with voters, while Lee maintained a positive message from start to finish.

Lee began gaining momentum over the past two months, and both Boyd and Black began attacking him. Lee, however, did not respond in kind, and an electorate increasingly weary of the back and forth between Black, the long-time elected official, and Boyd, the former member of Tennessee Gov. Haslam’s administration, continued to gravitate to his positive approach.

All four candidates identified themselves as strong supporters of President Trump, but Boyd’s campaign was hurt by his 2016 comments in which he said Trump was “anathema to me.” Black, for her part, played a key role in the passage of the president’s signature Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December as the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Though the president had kind words to say about Black at a rally held in Nashville in May to support Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN-07), who won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate on Thursday, a hoped for endorsement of Black by the president never came through.

Vice President Pence did endorse Black in the final weeks of the campaign, but it turned out to be a case of too little too late.

Trump’s decision not to endorse any candidate during the Tennessee GOP gubernatorial primary, despite having jumped into primary battles in Florida, Georgia, and Michigan, is another example of the president’s innate political instincts and sense of timing.

In the end, the race was less about political ideology than it was about character, likeability, and outsiders versus insiders, and in that choice, voters overwhelmingly preferred Lee.

Lee successfully portrayed himself as the conservative outsider, who built up a family HVAC and plumbing business to become a huge success, and never held an elected or appointed job in federal or state government.

Though Boyd and Black both outspent him in the race–Boyd spent a reported $20 million while Black spent about $14 million–he spent enough in his campaign–about $7 million–to get his message across the state.

He began his campaign in April 2017 with a bus tour of all 95 counties in the state by telling his compelling personal story. In 2000, his first wife died in a tragic horseback riding accident, and it was his strong Christian faith, he said, that kept him moving forward for his children and his business. Remarried now to his second wife, Maria, he promised voters that he would continued to be guided by his Christian faith as governor.

Lee faces former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who easily won the Democratic primary, in the November general election.