Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee held a town hall in Knoxville on Sunday night, the city and date on which a debate between all four GOP gubernatorial candidates was scheduled to be held.
The event was cancelled when the other three candidates–Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06), and Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R-Nashville)–said they would not be attending.
Lee used the evening’s town hall, and the cancellation of the debate, as an opportunity to emphasize his outsider status in this Facebook post:
Tennessee Star Political Editor Steve Gill said it was a good move by Lee to take advantage of the open field created by the debate cancellation.
“Campaigns that take bold aggressive moves when the opportunity presents itself show the confidence of a candidate gaining momentum. Lee had the chance to own the news cycle and grabbed hold of it,” Gill said.
The symbolic importance of Sunday’s event for the Lee campaign is of great significance, given the fluidity of the Republican gubernatorial primary with just one week and three days until the August 2 primary election.
Lee has been steadily gaining momentum over the past two months, moving from a distant fourth place in The Tennessee Star Poll released in December to a very close third place in The Tennessee Star Poll released on June 30:
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd leads Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) by 5 points, 32 percent to 27 percent, among likely Republican gubernatorial primary voters in a Tennessee Star Poll released today.
The battle for the Republican nomination for governor in Tennessee is now a three-way race, with Williamson County businessman Bill Lee surging into a strong third position, with 20 percent. Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) is no longer a factor in the Republican gubernatorial primary, coming in a distant fourth position with only 7 percent of the vote. Only 13 percent of poll respondents said they were undecided.
The poll of 1,040 likely Tennessee Republican primary voters was conducted for The Tennessee Star by Triton Polling and Research over a four day period beginning Monday June 25 and ending Thursday June 28 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
The Tennessee Star Poll released today indicates there has been significant movement in the race since the last Tennessee Star Poll results in December 2017.
At that time Diane Black had a ten point lead over Randy Boyd, with Black receiving the support of 21 percent of likely Tennessee Republican primary voters, followed by Boyd in second place with 11 percent. Rounding out the bottom tier of candidates were Speaker Harwell with 6 percent, Bill Lee with 4 percent, and then candidate for Governor former State Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) with 3 percent. Beavers later dropped out of the race and is now running for Wilson County Mayor.
A number of private polls taken during July are said to show the Republican gubernatorial primary is now a three way race between Lee, Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, and Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06), with Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) in a distant fourth.
Sources tell The Star that Lee himself has been expressing confidence that he is now the front runner, though the Boyd and Black campaign contest that assessment.
Lee has succeeded in developing a loyal base among Christians and grassroots populists around the state by building his campaign around his Christian faith and emphasizing his outsider status. His supporters argue that he is not only more likable than either of his three opponents, he is also the only candidate who has never taken a paycheck from a job in federal or state government.
Both Black and Boyd have aggressively challenged Lee’s conservative bona fides in a number of hard hitting television and radio commercials.
Lee has responded by not answering the attacks directly, but instead saying the attack ads say more about the attackers than him.
While the Lee campaign is sending out signals they expect their man to win in a major upset on August 2, at least one significant obstacle could stand in the way of a happy electoral outcome for the political newcomer.
As The Star reported on Saturday, President Trump is apparently considering endorsing Diane Black for governor, a move that Gov. Bill Haslam and several officials at the Republican Governors Association he chairs are lobbying the president not to make:
The New York Times confirmed on Friday a story first reported in The Tennessee Star that officials with the Republican Governors Association (RGA) are lobbying President Trump not to endorse Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) in the August 2 Republican primary for governor of Tennessee.
“R.G.A. officials are lobbying the White House to keep Mr. Trump out of that race [in Kansas where Kris Kobach is running for governor against GOP establishment supported Jeff Colyer], where they are backing Mr. Colyer. They would also prefer he remain on the sidelines in Tennessee, where Representative Diane Black has been hoping to win Mr. Trump’s backing in the crowded August primary to succeed Mr. Haslam, who is term-limited,” the Times reported.
Multiple sources tell The Star that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who was the most vocal Never Trumper in the country up until the day Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016 and serves as the chairman of the RGA, is aggressively lobbying the president directly to keep him from endorsing Black. Black played a key role as chairman of the House Budget Committee in passing the president’s landmark Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts in December, the signature accomplishment of his administration to date.
“The reason offered by the RGA as to why President Trump shouldn’t endorse Trump conservatives like Black in Tennessee and Kobach in Kansas is ludicrous,” said a long-time and current high-ranking RGA official.
“What makes it particularly outrageous is that the effort to deny Trump endorsements to Trump conservatives is coming from the most notorious anti-Trump governor, Bill Haslam, who declared he would never vote for Trump and who called on Trump to withdraw from the race in 2016 just weeks before he was elected president,” the official added.
President Trump’s approval rating among likely Republican primary voters in Tennessee remains sky high–87 percent in the Tennessee Star Poll released on June 30.
Should President Trump endorse Diane Black, it would almost certainly tilt the expected outcome next Thursday in her favor.
But as with most things in the current political environment, it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen between now and election day on August 2.