Lee won with a 'stiletto and not a meat ax'

Lee won with a 'stiletto and not a meat ax'

August 6th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Politics State

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / ...Bill Lee, a Tennessee gubernatorial candidate, talks about his candidacy during a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at his office in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

By the time they shifted attention to him, Bill Lee was ready.

In early July, after focusing on presumed front-runner Randy Boyd for months, U.S. Rep. Diane Black cut an attack ad against Lee. The gist? He donated money to Democratic politicians.

A couple weeks later, Boyd also moved the focus of his attacks to Lee. He said Lee was associated with a group that once pushed for immigration reform. Also, he donated to Democrats. Also, maybe he doesn't actually support President Donald Trump.

On July 10, Lee released a response.

"All these dishonest attack ads," he said, over soft piano. "They're a great example of what's wrong with politics. I'm not going down that road. It's not who I am. It's not what a leader does. I think those ads reveal a lot more truth about the person running the ad than the person in the ad. A person willing to deceive, say anything, do anything to get elected: Is that who you want as governor?"

It was a great response, Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said. In effect, Lee cut a negative ad, criticizing his opponents. But he did so in a way that appeared dignified, as if he was shaking his head at a fight in the sewer — err, swamp.

On Thursday, Lee won the four-candidate Republican governor's primary with 36.7 percent of the vote. Lee faces Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Nov. 6 general election. 

"Lee was using a stiletto and not a meat ax," Geer said. "And the Republican primary voters like a stiletto much more than a meat ax."

When he launched his campaign, Lee was relatively unknown across the state. He had no political experience. He ran a big company based in Nashville, but he wasn't a celebrity businessman, like Trump. For most of the race, it put him behind Black and Boyd, the state's former economic and community development director.

Lee's team used it to his advantage.

"They're not going to know him early," said Fred Davis III, Lee's media consultant. "We couldn't compete. But we knew we had the best candidate, the best person, the best heart. We knew that he would grow well on people. There's only one day you win or lose. That was [Thursday]. It wasn't Jan. 1. It wasn't March 15."

With Black and Boyd the early favorites, Lee's team stayed out of the fray while the two front runners fired shots. In an October press release, Black said Boyd was not a sufficient Republican. She wrote that Boyd, an avid runner, boasted a conservative record "as short as his shorts."

In May, a PAC funded by a Boyd supporter shot back: Black was actually the one who was not a sufficient Republican. The ad highlighted a vote 17 years ago in the state legislature, when Black supported a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.

Black then said Boyd had previously disavowed Trump and once pushed for tax increases. Boyd called Black "D.C. Diane" and showed her in a swamp and doing an interview with "LIBERAL REPORTER" Katie Couric.

By contrast, Lee's ads were soothing. They showed him walking through his family farm in Williamson County, wearing jeans and plaid button-downs. They showed him at his company and the church where he grew up, too. He didn't mention Black. He didn't mention Boyd. He didn't mention the fourth candidate, Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

In his first TV ad, released in January, he talked about the death of his first wife, how it made him a stronger Christian who wanted to dedicate his life to helping others. Later, he talked about the need to support farmers and quoted Jesus. (Adding another layer: The background music of most of his ads was "Carol Ann," a song written 18 years ago in honor of his late wife by Christian artist Michael W. Smith, a friend of Lee's.)

According to a Vanderbilt University poll in early May, Lee had the lowest name recognition of the four candidates. But among those who knew him, his favorabilities were the highest. His unfavorabilities were the lowest.

His campaign team spent about $7 million, compared to $21 million for Boyd and $14 million for Black. Lee's team made its ad push in the final months of the race.

"We wanted to get Bill on the playing field early," Davis said of the January ad. "Then we went dark for a long, long, long time, while our competitors were on the air. It wasn't like we had a choice. Bill told us what the budget would be."

Davis, a veteran conservative media consultant, said he met with Lee about 1 1/2 years ago, in an upstairs, private dining room at Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse in Nashville. Lee was not his first choice. He had previously been rejected by Boyd, but he still wanted skin in the Tennessee governor's race. Lee seemed nice, and he believed in his story with conviction. Davis saw potential.

The addition of Davis was the first sign Lee was a threat in the Republican field, Geer said. He believes Davis is "one of the best media people in the country," with experience working on presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and John McCain.

"Boyd would have had a much better campaign had he had Fred Davis," Geer said.

But Lee's advertisements are a stark contrast from Davis' specialty. He is famously absurdist, known to take a slight quirk and blow it up. He wants spots that will drop jaws and — sometimes — outrage people. Crazy ads are more economically efficient than traditional ones. When you run a crazy ad, it becomes a news story. Journalists spread your message for free.

His first famous ad was a 1994 spot, in which he poked fun at some Bill Clinton legislation. A small, overlooked piece of the proposed law would fund dancing classes for convicts. So, Davis hired burly men, dressed them in pink Tutus and filmed them twirling in a studio.

In 2002, he helped Sonny Perdue unseat incumbent Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes with a short film of a Godzilla-sized rat plodding over downtown Atlanta in a crown. A voiceover actor proclaimed him "King Roy." Later, Davis directed an ad of Christine O'Donnell announcing to the camera, "I'm not a witch." Also, an ad depicting a political opponent as a demon dressed a sheep.

At times, critics have said his messages are dog whistling, a charge Davis denies. A 2012 ad attacking Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow attempted to portray her as reckless with taxpayer money. It showed an Asian woman riding a bicycle through a rice paddy.

"Debbie spend so much American money, you borrow more and more from us," the woman said. "Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs."

Amid complaints, Davis' client, a Republican candidate, pulled the ad from his website.

About three months later, in May 2012, an anti-Obama ad proposal authored by Davis leaked to the New York Times. The document was titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama," referred to the president as a "metrosexual black Abe Lincoln" and argued that the Republican candidate needed to tie Obama to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, something he believed Sen. John McCain failed to do in 2008. (Davis, who worked for McCain during the 2008 race, described him as a "crusty old politician who often seemed confused" in the leaked document.)

Over the past year, though, Davis said he took cues from Lee. But he added that Lee was in the right position, with the two leading candidates at each other's throats early. Zach Wamp, a former congressman who endorsed Lee, agreed that negative ads are more effective in a two-candidate field.

"The smart strategy is to stay completely away from it," he said. "Run straight ahead positively. Bill Lee executed it to perfection."

For Wamp and his son, Weston, this governor's race felt personal. Boyd's campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, worked for Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in his races against Weston Wamp. During the 2014 campaign, a mailer paid for by Chuck Fleischmann for Congress Committee showed Weston Wamp, edited to be burning a passport.

Weston Wamp said Saltsman's campaign used other tactics, like splicing his words and taking them out of context. During an interview with the Times Free Press on Friday, he said he felt energized by the positively of Lee's campaign. He also cut a video in support of Lee on his Facebook page, which featured him almost crying at times and garnered 25,000 views.

Nationally, Saltsman is best known for an unsuccessful bid for Republican National Committee chairman, which flamed out in December 2008 when he distributed a CD featuring the song "Barack the Magical Negro." (Saltsman told CNN at the time the song was political satire.)

"He's a dirty actor," Zach Wamp said. "And frankly, it was a $25 million mistake Randy Boyd made of hiring a dirty actor. That's the bottom line. Frankly, a guy who rose to prominence of running dirty, unethical campaigns, and it caught up with him. Finally." Saltsman did not return a request for comment.

Davis added that Tennessee voters tend to disparage attack ads more than other state he works in. He doesn't have any scientific proof for this. But, compared to his more outlandish pieces, Davis' work here tends to take on a different theme. He sells nostalgia and depicts the candidate as a quiet, humble leader, feeling a burden to improve the world.

Take his ads for Bill Haslam. Davis filmed a spot in the cafeteria where Haslam, a billionaire, worked as a kid. ("I just like him," his former boss.) Another ad showed Haslam walking alone through a field, his sleeves rolled up.

For Bob Corker's 2006 senate campaign, Davis depicted the candidate as a small business owner, made good. Like in one of Lee's ads, Corker talked about his work on a missions trip. Davis framed his opponent, Harold Ford Jr., as an elitist who didn't care about the good people of Tennessee.

"I may not be as good lookin'," Corker, a millionaire, said in one ad. "I may not be as articulate. And I may not be able to do those slick commercials. But what I can do is solve problems. That's what I've been doing all my life. That's why I get up in the morning."

Lee's press secretary, Chris Burger, declined to comment Friday on when internal polls showed Lee was ahead in the race. But Geer said the answer was obvious: once Black and Boyd started criticizing him. By then, they bruised themselves too much.

"People want some sort of positive message," he said. "There really wasn't much of one."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett t 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.