By Jim Ellis
Aug. 3, 2018 — Often in politics when two candidates begin to square off against each other in a multi-candidate field, that pair loses and an opponent coming from the outside walks away with the prize. That model again happened last night in the Tennessee Republican primary.
Businessman Bill Lee, the only candidate with no governmental experience, took advantage of his late polling surge and captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Thursday’s Volunteer State primary election. Lee’s victory was substantial, winning a 37-24-23-15 percent over businessman and former state Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, US Rep. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), and state House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). Lee will now oppose former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary with 75 percent of the vote.
The open governor’s primary had been hotly contested. Rep. Black and Boyd had been leading in most polls, but Lee had made a major final push and became a late factor in the race. Most surveys had Rep. Black holding a slight advantage, but the polls had been hovering within the polling margin of error for several weeks. We saw that play out last night.
Voter turnout heavily favored the Republicans to the point of more than doubling the Democratic participation rate. In the governor’s race, 785,969 Republicans voted as compared to 369,775 Democrats. Lee now becomes the heavy favorite to succeed term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam (R) in the fall general election.
There was no suspense in the open US Senate race because Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) and former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) easily won their respective party nominations against only minor opposition, thus officially beginning a general election campaign that has already been proceeding for many weeks.
In the House races, incumbents Phil Roe (R-Johnson City), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), Scott DesJarlais (R-South Pittsburg), and Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) all were easily re-nominated in percentages ranging from 70 (DesJarlais) to 91 (Cohen). Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) was the only incumbent House member in either party unopposed for re-nomination.
The member facing the most serious primary challenge, freshman Rep. David Kustoff (R-Germantown) in western Tennessee’s 8th District, was re-nominated with 56 percent of the vote. He again overcame one of his many 2016 opponents, Dr. George Flinn, who spent well over $3 million of his own money in a fourth attempt at running for Congress. From a 13-candidate field in the previous open cycle two years ago, Kustoff won the nomination with just 27 percent of the Republican vote, topping Dr. Flinn’s 23 percent. Last night, Kustoff’s margin was 16 points, 56-40 percent.
In the open 2nd District, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett defeated state Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City) 48-36 percent, with military veteran Sarah Nickloes attracting 11 percent. The remaining five percentage points were dispersed among four minor candidates. Mayor Burchett will now face environmental activist Renee Hoyos, who easily won the Democratic nomination. Burchett becomes the prohibitive favorite to replace retiring Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-Knoxville) in a district that President Trump carried 65-30 percent and hasn’t elected a Democratic congressman since 1852.
In the battle of heavy self-funders running to replace Rep. Black in the open middle Tennessee 6th District, former state Agriculture Commissioner John Rose scored a 41-31-16 percent victory over retired Chancery Court Judge Bob Corlew and state Rep. Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma). Two other candidates split the remaining 12 percentage points. Both Rose and Corlew spent seven figures of their own money. The new GOP nominee now faces physician Dawn Barlow, who captured 55 percent in the Democratic primary. Republican turnout exceed Democratic participation by better than a 3:1 ratio, 104,784 to 30,634. Rose is now the prohibitive favorite to win here in November.
In the open 7th District, state Sen. Mark Green (R-Clarksville) was surprisingly unopposed for the Republican nomination in a safe GOP district. He will replace Rep. Blackburn in the next Congress. The Democrats nominated digital media producer Justin Kanew with 62 percent of the vote last night, but this new general election campaign will be largely noncompetitive.