Cooper: Beat Gov. Bill Lee? Probably not

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee greets people at a put-in on the Ocoee River last month.

A new political action committee was created in April called Its mission, according to the website, is to "beat the extreme right power grab by [Tennessee Gov.] Bill Lee and save our families."

Its quest, again according to the website, has 107 volunteers out of some 4 million registered voters. It will need a lot more than that to head off the governor from re-election.

Since the Tennessee constitution was amended in 1977 to allow governors to serve two consecutive terms, every governor - Democrat and Republican - has been re-elected. None of the races really has been close.

The closest was the first one after the constitutional change, in 1982, when Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander defeated Democrat Randy Tyree by nearly 20 percentage points, 59.6% to 40.4%. The loser's percentage has gone down from there and is usually less than 30%.

Lee is in no trouble, especially within his party, as a new ARW Strategies poll - not paid for by any candidate or committee - suggests.

The poll of likely Republican primary voters finds 86% approve of the job he's doing as governor, and 85% have a favorable opinion of him.

We're curious about the 1% who like what Lee's doing but don't have a favorable opinion of him, but the poll was of no help there.

Poll respondents also approve of his specific actions as governor, with 86% more likely to vote for him for signing the bill that bars transgender individuals from playing on sports teams that don't correspond with their birth gender, 83% more likely to vote for him because of his handling of the pandemic, 82% more likely to vote for him because of his signing of the permitless handgun carry law, and 81% more likely to vote for him because of his support of a school choice scholarship program.

A year out from Lee's re-election campaign, we also were curious where he stood compared to the other two two-term Tennessee governors in the 21st century.

In 2013, a year before the re-election campaign of Lee's predecessor, Bill Haslam had the approval of 68% of voters in January, 61% in March and 60% in May. Two of the polls even showed approval by more than 50% of state Democrats. Even though the three polls - by three different firms - showed an approval drop of 8% in five months, his 60% approval was golden. The Republican governor won re-election in 2014 by nearly 50 percentage points, 70.3% to 22.8% for Democrat Charles Brown.

In 2005, a year before the re-election campaign of Democrat Phil Bredesen, 62% of voters approved of him in a spring poll, but that support fell 10% to 52% in a November poll. Yet, he was seen as more favorable than unfavorable by both Democrats and Republicans. In a July poll, his approval rating was only 48%, and more Republicans had a favorable opinion of him than did his own Democrats. But it mattered not. Bredesen was re-elected in 2006 by nearly 40 percentage points, 68.6% to 29.7% for Republican Jim Bryson.

According to the new ARW poll, Lee's popularity among Republicans falls between that for their United States senators and for former President Donald Trump.

Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty have approval ratings of 79% and 78%, respectively, but Trump has an approval rating of an astounding 90% by GOP voters. Of that 90%, 72% said they had a very favorable opinion of him.

The Trump brand also won out when the poll asked voters just what kind of Republican they were. Since he was the only one named in a Republican "type," 75% said they considered themselves Trump/America First Republicans. The other 25% said they were traditional, social conservative, tea party or libertarian.

Evidently, Tennessee Trump/America First Republicans also consider Lee, Blackburn and Hagerty part of their ilk. After all, the approval ratings by those respondents who link their brand with the former president are higher for the governor and two U.S. senators than they are overall by state Republicans.

In 2022, though, only Lee - of the four GOP officeholders or former officeholders mentioned in the poll - is on the ballot. Whether GOP poll respondents were aware of that is not clear, but the top issue for them - 28% of them, at least - is stopping crime and supporting law enforcement. Fighting illegal immigration/opposing sanctuary cities is second at 23%. Third at 19% is ensuring election election integrity/preventing voter fraud.

The poll, of course, was taken only of likely Republican primary voters. Democrats have different priorities and different thoughts about the Republican lawmakers. The question is whether they will be able to do anything about them. From the perspective of a year and a month out from the primaries, we don't believe they will.