NASHVILLE — Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp is endorsing Franklin businessman Bill Lee in Tennessee's Aug. 2 Republican gubernatorial primary, saying Lee's "positive vision" and refusal to engage in what Wamp calls "trash politics" set him apart in the four-candidate field.
"Campaigns for office have a way of bringing out the best in people and bringing out the worst in people," said Wamp, a Chattanoogan who served seven terms in the U.S. House and ran unsuccessfully for governor himself in 2010. "And I am jumping in to help Bill Lee primarily because of the campaign he has run."
Wamp said in the Times Free Press interview Sunday that he originally intended to stay out of the primary but is now helping Lee because "he's trying to lift people up instead of tearing them down."
Wamp will campaign with Lee on Monday.
GOP race frontrunners U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin and Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd are engaged in a multimillion- dollar slugfest with television, radio, direct mail and digital ads in the contest where early voting began last week. Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is the fourth major GOP candidate.
As a candidate, Wamp said, Lee "has run the most honorable campaign, the most positive campaign" by stressing "accountability and virtue" and demonstrating to voters how he would govern the state by assembling a quality campaign team that has shied away from attacks.
Alluding to Black and Boyd's attacks — Black has also attacked Lee — Wamp said, "do we have to lower our standards to this kind of trash? It's unbecoming to the government of our great state."
"If you turn your campaign over to these trash-mouth political operatives at some point people have got to reject it," said Wamp, a social conservative who added he sees Lee as a "conservative who loves Tennessee, believes in the nobility of public service and desires our leaders to carry themselves with dignity and honor."
Lee openly has touted his Christian faith in a recent ad. Recent polls have shown Lee, who is seeking his first public office, in third place but rising.
In a statement, Lee said Wamp "has always stood on conservative principles and I am humbled and grateful to have his support."
Harwell and Lee have largely shied away from attacking, although the speaker on Friday began airing an ad featuring children playing Black, Boyd and Lee arguing.
Now a business consultant, Wamp last year became a co-chair of the bipartisan group Issue One's "ReFormers Caucus," which is working to reform what the group calls a "broken democratic process" in Washington.
During his own 2010 GOP primary race, Wamp was locked in a three-person race with then- Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who eventually won, and then-Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
Toward the end of the campaign, Wamp was critical of Haslam, a billionaire whose father had founded the Pilot Travel Centers chain, as well as Ramsey.
"I have a great deal of respect for Ron Ramsey," said Wamp of Ramsey, who is Black's campaign chairman.
Wamp noted his own stance at the start of the 2018 campaign was that all six candidates "are good people." The field includes Democrats Karl Dean, a former Nashville mayor, and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.
Boyd's campaign is headed by Chip Saltsman, a former state Republican Party chairman known for his sometimes bare-knuckled approach to politics.
Saltsman successfully steered Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah through his first three campaigns in the state's 3rd Congressional District, including Fleischmann's first bid to succeed Wamp as well as two GOP primary challenges by Wamp's son, Weston Wamp.
Early voting in the GOP primary continues through July 28.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.