Lee's winning formula: 'Conservative outsider,' 'man of faith' and relatability

Republican Tennessee Governor candidate Bill Lee celebrates with supporters at his primary election night party at the Factory in Franklin, Tenn., Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. Businessman Lee defeated three other Republicans in a bruising primary for Tennessee governor Thursday, setting the stage for a competitive fall contest against former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who cruised to the Democratic nomination. (Shelley Mays/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE - As his supporters and family rallied under a blistering July sun several weeks ago, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Lee was brushing aside attacks launched at him by his GOP primary opponents.

"The attacks mean people are nervous; they're concerned," the 58-year-old Franklin businessman and political newcomer declared of his main rivals. "They see the momentum. They know what's happening in the polls, and I'm committed to staying positive."

And Lee, the self-styled "outsider," largely did just that, although he sometimes used a little political jiu-jitsu.

Last week, Tennessee Republican voters rewarded self-styled "conservative outsider" and "man of faith" Lee, giving him a nearly 37 percent share of the GOP primary vote in his battle with U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd and state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville.

He carried 72 of 95 counties, including Hamilton and other parts of Southeast Tennessee.

While Lee's totals didn't exceed 50 percent, candidates for state and federal office in Tennessee don't have to. Unlike states like Georgia, the candidate with the most votes wins.

He even carried Black's home county, Sumner, and most of the other counties in the 6th Congressional District she's represented for a decade. And Boyd's hopes of geographic advantage in East Tennessee largely evaporated, although Boyd did carry Knox County and some counties in the area. And he won a number of counties in West Tennessee.

Lee now faces Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Nov. 6 general election.

This was a primary race that many initially didn't think the successful, soft-spoken businessman, cattle farmer and first-time political candidate could win.

But a bitter primary brawl between Black and Boyd, a tough political year for sitting congressmen like Black and other factors - the list includes Lee's outsider status, successful business background, personality, outspoken religious faith and the decision to remain largely positive - helped fuel his victory.

Moreover, Lee had a highly personal and compelling story to tell that helped connect him with voters. That was the death of his first wife in a horse-riding accident. He described in his first ad how it changed his own life trajectory.

It motivated him, he said, to "work to change others, to make life better for other people," not only at his family-owned Lee Company building-and-construction services firm but through public service.

Lee's professional campaign staff - his campaign manager is former Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney - along with Lee's personable style and outreach to rural voters, was enough for them to define Lee well enough in voters' minds so he could withstand the later gale force winds unleashed by Black, Boyd and their surrogates.

Veteran political strategist Tom Ingram has played major roles in virtually every successful statewide GOP campaign since the late 1970s.

Lee's victory, he said, "came down to voters selecting a candidate that did not seem politics as usual, seemed authentically Tennessee and presented credentials that suggest he would be a strong, effective executive and provide real leadership to Tennessee."

Ingram, who didn't have a horse in the contest, said Black's campaign "failed in the sense that it came across as politics as usual, probably more anger than people in Tennessee were comfortable with. I think that Randy's camp failed to connect effectively with Tennesseans, although he worked extremely hard."

While Black, a former House Budget chairman who helped set the framework for President Donald Trump and the GOP's tax cuts, had hoped for an endorsement from the president, it never came through, although the president did praise her publicly. She hit hard on red-meat Washington issues such as illegal immigration and touted her support of Trump.

A wildly successful businessman who served as term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's economic development czar, Boyd was seen by many as the heir to Haslam and the more moderate wing of the GOP. Haslam never formally endorsed anyone.

But Boyd was the logical "Haslam 2.0" candidate and had a good positive story to tell too, said one veteran GOP observer who spoke on condition his name not be used. Listing various groups in the GOP - moderates, hardliners, traditional conservatives and evangelicals - he suggested Boyd's campaign should have continued focusing on moderates and staying in a positive mode.

That might have given him the most votes in a multicandidate field, he said. Instead, Boyd and Black as the then-front runners were drawn into a fight for the hard right on federal issues and loyalty to Trump.

Various independent expenditure groups belonging to respective supporters and others attacked both Black and Boyd. But it was Black's campaign that struck the first official blow, hitting both Boyd and Lee at the same time in an ad. Boyd returned fire. Soon both began attacking Lee as his poll numbers continued rising.

Disgruntled Republican hardliners, moderates, traditional conservatives and evangelicals began looking at Lee and found he checked enough of their boxes to be acceptable.

In one ad, Lee spoke into the camera saying, "People ask me all the time, 'What do you believe?' Let me tell you. My relationship with Christ is the most important thing in my life. That will never change."

And while Lee never directly attacked Black and Lee, he deftly denounced the "dishonest" attacks against him, calling them a "great example of what's wrong with politics. I'm not going down that road."

Lee communications director Chris Walker "we knew that the Tennessee Republican primary electorate wanted a conservative and an outsider and we knew Bill Lee fit both those categories really well. And that's why we think he won at the end of the day. He was the candidate who fit both of those bills perfectly."

Efforts to speak with Boyd and his campaign chief, Chip Saltsman, were unsuccessful Saturday at a GOP "unity rally" featuring Lee and the fallen, glum-faced rivals Black, Boyd and Harwell who finished in fourth place.

Gregory Gleaves, president of the direct-mail firm Direct Edge who worked for Black's campaign described first hand how it played out in the end.

"Bill Lee's campaign was like a freight train going downhill picking up steam the last few weeks, just like an unstoppable force," Gleaves said. "Nothing stuck to him. And nothing could blunt his momentum."

That is going to pose a problem for Dean, especially in a Republican state, he predicted.

"It's going to force him to win on the issues, and it's very hard for a Democrat to win on the issues in Tennessee. He's not going to be able to hit Bill lee and be successful at it," said Gleaves, who the day after the election posted a photo on Twitter showing a freshly planted Lee campaign sign in his yard.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.