NASHVILLE, Tenn. ( Associated Press) — Nearly four years ago, Bill Lee stunned political pundits when the first-time political candidate survived a bruised and littered $45 million Republican primary for Tennessee governor. of people. He managed to win the top elected state seat a few months later.
Now, the Republican businessman is enjoying a drastically different re-election race, with much more room to breathe.
Despite criticism within his own political party, Democrats and advocates from multiple sides of the political spectrum, Lee faces no challenger in the Republican primary in August. The state’s Republican Party has removed two lesser-known opponents from the ballot.
That means he will likely sail into 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 primary for governor, where candidates include physician Jason Martin, Memphis Councilman JB Smiley Jr. and community advocate Carnita Atwater.
Lee’s campaign did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
A Tennessee governor hasn’t avoided facing an opponent in the primary since then-Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1990. Before that, former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander was unopposed in the 1982 primary, according to legislative historian Eddie Weeks. Both won another four years in office.
Lee went through a first term marred by a global pandemic and drew some backlash from conservative circles for the first economic shutdowns that were common across the country. Ultimately, he opposed a statewide mask mandate and championed vaccine rejecters, as Republican officials have largely done.
“Bill Lee has been popular during his time as governor. He started out in the low 60s, but now he’s down to the mid-high 50s … which most governors would covet right off the bat,” said John Geer, a dean at Vanderbilt University who co-directs the U.S. public policy poll. the school. .
Lee sought to crush any serious opposition within the party by aligning himself with an increasingly conservative GOP-dominated legislature, particularly on social issues. He pushed for a sweeping abortion ban and a law on carrying guns without a permit, and endorsed other socially conservative policies, including those targeting LGBTQ people.
Lawmakers have, at times, boosted or undermined some of the governor’s major initiatives, including a push to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Lee has also on occasion avoided opposition from him, including to secure the removal of the bust of former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from Capitol Hill.
In particular, Lee was forced to abandon his plan to offer paid family leave to state workers after receiving a cool reception from Republican lawmakers. He, too, drew heavy criticism from those same Republican leaders when the governor refused to stop refugee resettlement in 2019 when former President Donald Trump gave him the option.
“He’s been in an enviable position where it was clear for a while that he wasn’t going to face a serious electoral threat, so he had the ability to pursue the policies he wanted to pursue, rather than worrying about the electoral fallout in particular. policies,” Geer said.
Lee has also been on the ground after deadly tornadoes have hit various parts of the state. He has refused to remove inmates from death row as Tennessee accelerated to become one of the fastest states to kill inmates. Then, earlier this year, he halted all executions due to lethal injection drug testing omissions and ordered an independent investigator to investigate how widespread the state’s problems are in following its own death penalty protocol.
Unlike some Republican predecessors, Lee has refused to use a powerful tool: his veto stamp. 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 several felonies. The Lee administration allowed the bill to become law despite his push to divert more people from state prisons and expand services for those released from prison.
However, his office wields another powerful tool: the executive privilege to keep government records private. Lee promised to review Tennessee’s public records and open meeting laws during his transition to office, but no action has been taken to date.
One of Lee’s key victories during his first terms has included rewriting how Tennessee funds its public schools. The Lee administration spearheaded an effort that allocates a set amount of money per student, a model mirrored in nearly 40 other states.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the measure for sidestepping the larger issue of better funding the state’s education system, but supporters argue the new system simplified a confusing and outdated funding algorithm.
Meanwhile, Lee has enacted a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. The move came as Lee has repeatedly emphasized his opposition to abortion. However, the ban came into force at the end of last month, following the Supreme Court ruling that ended the constitutional right to procedure.
Lee scored another victory earlier this year when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that his controversial 2019 school voucher law, which passed by a slim margin, did not violate the state constitution. The law, which allows families to spend taxpayer money on private schools, has yet to be implemented, but Lee and other school choice advocates say they hope it will be soon.