Businessman and cattle farmer Bill Lee won the Republican nomination for governor in Tennessee Thursday, capturing 36 percent of the vote to beat out five other candidates in a bruising primary fight.
Lee will face former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who won 75 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, in November’s general election.
The gubernatorial primary race was the most expensive in state history. Candidates on both sides spent more than $50 million overall, and two of the losing Republicans — Rep. Diane Black and businessman Randy Boyd — spent a combined $31 million of their own money.
With Lee an early favorite in the general election in conservative Tennessee, attention in the state now turns to the Senate race to fill the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Volunteer State hasn’t been represented by a Democrat in the Senate for more than two decades. But this year the election to replace Corker is rated a toss up by Cook Political Report; the race is one of the Democratic Party’s best hopes to pick up a Republican-held seat this fall.
Democrat Phil Bredesen, a popular former governor of Tennessee and health care executive, won the Democratic primary Thursday with 91.5 percent of the vote. Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, an eight-term congresswoman who represents parts of central and western Tennessee, easily won the GOP primary with 84.5 percent of the vote.
A recent Emerson College poll showed Bredesen leading Blackburn by six points. But Bredesen will face a tough general election in a state that President Donald Trump won by 26 points in 2016. Trump’s approval rating in the state still tops 50 percent, higher than his national numbers.
The last time Bredesen was on a statewide ballot, when he ran for reelection as governor in 2006, he won 68 percent of the vote, swept all 95 counties and got more votes than any governor in state history. But the state has shifted right since then.
Tennessee has an open primary system, but Democratic turnout in the Senate primary this year was down more than 10 percent compared to 2006. In contrast, Republican turnout was up 50 percent from 2006. Republicans cast nearly twice as many votes as Democrats on Thursday.
That’s one reason Bredesen — who has spent more than $3.5 million of his own money so far this cycle — has campaigned as a moderate. Bredesen has said repeatedly in campaign ads that he will work with the president on issues that benefit the state and oppose him on others like tariffs, which Bredesen says are hurting Tennessee’s auto industry, farmers and the Jack Daniels distillery, an important local employer.
“We’ve just turned into a country where people stand on opposite sides of the room and shout at each other,” Bredesen told supporters after his victory Thursday. “I’d like to be part of the fix for that, to start to bring us back together, to find some solutions, and to do some things together.”
During a trip to Nashville earlier this year, Trump bashed the Democrat and labeled him an “absolute total tool” of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Blackburn has been endorsed by Trump, and she pledged Thursday during her victory speech to help “finish the agenda” Trump brought to Washington.
“This is not a race about the past. This is a race about the future,” Blackburn told supporters. “Democrats continue to say they’ve got this big blue wave that’s going to be washing over our state come November, but when the blue wave gets to the state line it has to go crashing into the great red wall.”
With Blackburn and Black running for statewide office and the retirement of Rep. John Duncan, there were three Republican-held House seats with open and competitive primaries.
Republican Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett won the GOP primary for Duncan’s seat; John Rose, former agriculture commissioner, won the Republican primary to replace Black; and state Sen. Mark Green won the GOP nomination for Blackburn’s seat, after running unopposed. All three will be the favorites to win headed into the general election.
In the state’s six other congressional districts, all the incumbent representatives survived their primaries.
The makeup of the congressional delegation – two Democrats and seven Republicans – is unlikely to change in November. Despite many first-time female candidates poised to join Congress nationwide, Tennessee will likely send an all-male delegation to the House for the first time since Blackburn was first elected in 2002.
The primary took place the same day that senior administration officials appeared at the White House to warn of Russia’s continued efforts to interfere in the midterm elections. Just last month, House Democrats said Tennessee was one of the 18 states most vulnerable to election meddling.
But the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office told NewsHour Thursday the state had not received any reports of hacking or outside interference. Officials pointed to new tools and increased cyber training as well as the state’s decentralized system as barriers to interference.