Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee won a quick victory on Tuesday, comfortably securing a second term after spending little time on the campaign trail and barely engaging with his Democratic opponent.
The Associated Press called the race at 7:02 p.m., minutes after polls closed in Tennessee, prompting cheers at Lee’s Franklin-based watch party.
“The people have spoken,” Lee said in a victory speech shortly before 8 p.m.
Lee largely ignored Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Jason Martin as Election Day approached, even as Martin posted social media and television ads heavily targeting Lee and his record.
In the final month of the race, however, Lee ramped up campaign spending, pumping more than $3 million into a series of TV ads and a last-minute bus tour before Election Day.
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The governor’s advertising campaign focused on his work on economic and family issues, avoiding mention of a strict ban on abortion which he praised elsewhere and any reference to Martin. The governor, who launched his first political campaign during a 2018 RV tour of 95 counties, held very few traditional campaign events across Tennessee until last week, when he launched a short bus tour of the state’s three major divisions.
Still, Lee was present throughout Tennessee during the summer and fall as he held official events across the state. Lee insisted he was pretty focused on his job as governor, despite some criticism for avoiding Martin’s request for a gubernatorial debate.
Lee’s campaign schedule was likely affected by first lady Maria Lee’s cancer diagnosis in August. Maria Lee posted a short video address last week updating Tennesseans on her condition as she undergoes chemotherapy treatments.
During an unexpected appearance at Lee’s victory party on Tuesday night, Maria Lee said she was “grateful and deeply touched for the many prayers” she has received over the past few months.
“This campaign was obviously a little different in a lot of ways,” said Maria Lee, joining her husband onstage.
Lee entered the election year with a well-funded war chest, bringing in nearly $5 million to his campaign account at the start of 2022. Although Martin nearly matched Lee in fundraising in the third quarter, he was never able to make up for the governor’s financial lead.
Lee’s absence from the campaign trail until the final days before Election Day was also an indication of his confidence in his re-election prospects.
Although frequently criticized by the left, Lee enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his first term, which was his first elected political position. His main hurdle was holding off a challenger to his right, Tennessee political experts said. Lee was successful, running unopposed in the Republican primary in August. At the same time, democratic prospects have withered in the state in recent years. No Democratic candidate has won a statewide election in Tennessee since Governor Phil Bredesen was successfully re-elected in 2006 by winning all 95 counties.
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Lee has largely avoided the incendiary right-wing rhetoric increasingly seen in Republican politics. But he hasn’t governed as a moderate, delivering meaty issues to his conservative base and aligning himself closely with his legislative colleagues on cultural issues such as Tennessee’s no-exception abortion ban and LGBTQ issues. . Lee hailed the passage of the abortion bill in 2020 and joined Republican lawmakers this year in hailing the law again, now in effect after the fall of the Roe v. Wade this summer.
A growing number of lawyers and institutions have signaled that they will lobby lawmakers to change the law early next year, including the chancellor of the University of Tennessee School of Medicine who will is said to be concerned that doctors lack legal protections under the law. Lee says he is comfortable with the law as it is and declined to answer questions about whether he would support changes, such as adding a real legal exception for abortions performed to save the life of the pregnant patient.
The issue will likely feature prominently in the upcoming January session, in addition to criminal justice reform, a topic Lee and Republican leaders have grappled with. Tensions rose at the end of the last session over hardline sentencing legislation that Republican leaders pushed to effectively lengthen sentences for a number of criminal offenses.
Lee, who has spoken often about his volunteer work with the Department of Prisons, favored increased rehabilitation programs over old-school, “crime-resistant” initiatives. The governor has received criticism from conservative media on the issue following the Eliza Fletcher case, the high-profile kidnapping and murder in Memphis earlier this fall. Republican lawmakers are expected to revisit sentencing issues in January.
Lee has repeatedly said he believes in “evidence-based” solutions to criminal justice problems, and that he and Republican leaders align on the issue more than they disagree.
Martin had criticized Lee for allowing the ‘truth in sentencing’ bill to become law earlier this year without his signature, a signal that he didn’t necessarily agree with the legislation but wouldn’t try to block her.
“I think Lee is most vulnerable when he’s defending something,” Martin told the Tennessean this summer. “It’s a complete lack of leadership.”
Lee made major inroads with his education platform during his first term, first pushing through a controversial voucher program that the courts finally cleared to implement this school year before overhauling the funding formula. of Tennessee schools in 2022, an initiative that has been in the works for decades. The governor stumbled this summer over a scandal involving conservative Hillsdale College and its plan to open dozens of affiliated charter schools in Tennessee.
The scandal has shone a spotlight on the Tennessee Charter Commission, a politically appointed board, and the group could see challenges to its structure in the next legislative session.
Longstanding issues at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services are also expected to follow Lee into his second term. Lee replaced the department’s director earlier this year with former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigator Margie Quin, who has been candid about systemic issues plaguing the system in recent conversations with lawmakers.
Quin is expected to bring salary increase demands and other proposals to the upcoming budget hearings, which begin immediately after Election Day. Lee indicated that DCS would be a top priority in his second term.
“We should never stop looking at how we come to serve the people of Tennessee better, especially when we consider children, children in custody, and children who have often been traumatized by other life circumstances” , Lee said in October. “When I finish this work, this whole system should serve children much better than it has in the past. That’s something I’m looking forward to making happen.”