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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee is torpedoing rumors that he's no longer enjoying his job and won't seek re-election in 2022 amid battles on the COVID-19 pandemic, politics and other fronts.

"I love this job," said the businessman after being asked at a news conference last week about speculation that he wouldn't run again. "It's been a big challenge, but I love serving Tennesseans, and I intend to do that as long they'll let me."

Asked if that means he is running again, Lee, who unexpectedly won the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary and then the general election in his first bid for office, had a one-word answer: "Yes."

The definitive response came after weeks of rumors circulating in GOP legislative and political circles that Lee was looking at a one-term-and-done approach to public service.

In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, the political newcomer has had to deal with deadly tornadoes that swept last year through Middle Tennessee as well as Chattanooga and other parts of Southeast Tennessee. And the governor has also had to grapple with a COVID-19 induced plummet in state revenue.

Former Tennessee House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who previously represented parts of Chattanooga and Hixson, said despite the challenges Lee's had to face, the governor's response that he intends to seek re-election hasn't come as much of a surprise to him.

"Being governor is probably a pretty good job and it would be interesting and fun, and I can imagine why he'd want to run again," he said.

Dr. John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, said Lee was "obviously going to put those to rest by indicating that he loves the job, it's an honor to serve and he's planning to run for re-election.

"You can imagine that some of those rumors had some basis in frustration he had," Geer added. "Or, perhaps, in some hopes that others had that they may be able to run if he doesn't. You just don't know."

But Geer said he believes Lee has now "clarified that. And given his popularity, and there isn't much evidence that's going to change, he'd be pretty hard to beat in a primary. It's not impossible. But he's popular — what is the argument going to be that gets primary voters to turn out against him?"

In Vanderbilt's polling last fall, Lee's overall approval rating stood at 64%. That was 3 percentage points higher than outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's rating.

Moreover, Lee's rating was based on higher approval ratings among Republicans, 82% of whom gave Lee a thumbs up, compared to Haslam's 69% approval among fellow Republicans. Haslam, a political moderate, did better among Democrats.

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

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