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Flanked by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixison, (left) and Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, (near right) Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee holds a ceremonial signing on Wednesday, June 30, 2021, of a law revamping the state's assistance program for impoverished families. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE — Likely Tennessee Republican primary voters are nearly as supportive of Republican Gov. Bill Lee as they are of former President Donald Trump, according to a new political survey released last week by an independent polling firm.

ARW Strategies' June 26-27 poll of 600 likely GOP primary voters found 90% of them expressing a favorable opinion of Trump. Asked about Lee, 85% voiced approval for the businessman who is up for re-election in 2022, while 86% of Republicans said in response to another question that they had favorable views of Lee's job performance.

The survey has a margin of error of plus-or-minus four percentage points.

"From his handling of the pandemic to recent legislation signed into law, Lee's support among his base looks impenetrable heading into his re-election next year," wrote Andrew Weissert, who founded ARW Strategies and is former head pollster with We Ask America.

Lee's chief of staff, Blake Harris, and his spokespersons had no comment on ARW's survey. While Weissert was at We Ask America, the polling firm had a B-minus rating by FiveThirtyEight.com, which is known, among other things, for its ratings of political polling firms.

On issues, the survey found strong support for Lee's signing into law a bill banning student-athletes from competing in a sport designated for a gender other than the one listed on the student's birth certificate.

The Human Rights Campaign announced last week it plans to challenge the law. While the legislation didn't originate with Lee, he signed it into law. Seventy-four percent of Republicans surveyed said they were "much more likely" to vote for Lee based on that, with another 12% saying they were "somewhat more likely" to vote for him based on that.

And the GOP base likes Lee's successful push for the permitless handgun carry law this year, with 82% voicing approval and saying it made them more likely to vote for his re-election. The law is being challenged by a California-based gun-rights group in federal court in Knoxville, with the group saying it doesn't go far enough and is unconstitutional because it excludes 18- to 20-year-olds unless they are serving or have honorably served in the U.S. military.

Fourteen percent of Republicans surveyed disapproved of Lee's job performance, while 11% view him unfavorably. Eighty-eight percent of self-identifying "Trump/America First Republicans" approve of Lee's job performance. Nine percent said they disapprove.

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ARW Strategies survey of Republican voters in Tennessee

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The survey also found strong support among likely GOP primary voters for Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, although not quite as strong as for Lee, who also had higher percentages over "very favorable" ratings from Republicans.

Seventy-nine percent of Republicans surveyed said they were "favorable" toward Blackburn — 53% were "very favorable" while 26% were "somewhat favorable." Hagerty, elected last November, received 78% favorability ratings among the GOP base. Forty percent said they were "very favorable" toward Hagerty, a former businessman and Trump's one-time U.S. ambassador to Japan, while another 38% said they were "somewhat favorable" to Hagerty.

As for Trump, 72% of GOP base voters held "very favorable" opinions of the former president while another 18% were "somewhat favorable." In comparison, 47% of the Republicans said they were "very favorable" toward Lee, while 38% were "somewhat favorable."

The survey sought to focus on Republicans who have voted in GOP primaries.

Ryan Burrell, founder of Knoxville-based Spry Strategies, who has business as well as political clients, said, "I can tell you that Bill Lee continues to enjoy very strong favorables, and I honestly thought that would start taking a bit of a dive, particularly with [his] COVID [actions]." He said he was "almost always amazed" while polling the state's 2018 governor's race because he was polling in several states and Lee was the only candidate he knew of who had "upward trajectory the entire race."

Burrell said his own polling — he often includes a favorability question about the governor in surveys dealing with other areas — shows Lee has anywhere from 62% to 68% approval among Republicans.

It's not clear at this juncture whether Lee will have a serious Republican challenger in the 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary. One Republican who is seen as a potential candidate is Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, former Tennessee director for Americans for Prosperity. Ogles, who has tweeted favorably about Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, told the Times Free Press in May while attending a Tennessee Republican State Executive Committee he was keeping an open mind about running.

Ogles praised DeSantis for having "led the way" on a number of issues ranging from transgender sports and transgender restroom legislation to battling Facebook and "protecting your rights against business against censorship."

"In Tennessee, we did some of those things, but we did them halfway," Ogles said. "And so I think the question from the electorate is, are you more interested in the middle-of-the-road approach, or are you interested in the conservative approach?"

Asked about his interest in running for governor, Ogles said, "I'm traveling the state, speaking to various groups, and we'll just see what time holds in the future."

In 2017, Ogles announced he was challenging then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in the GOP primary. But after Corker dropped out — the senator had drawn Trump's ire with criticisms in a number of areas — Ogles bowed out to Blackburn, then a congresswoman and favorite among GOP conservatives.

Tennessee Republican Party Chair Scott Golden said last week that "nobody has come and had a meeting with anybody at the state party regarding running in a primary against Gov. Lee. Obviously, Gov Lee's approval rating is a reflection of what Republicans have strived for in the state of Tennessee, and he's done a great job through really difficult circumstances."

Golden said regardless of primaries, Republicans are the dominant force in Tennessee, and with legislative lines being redrawn next year, Republicans should emerge from 2022 even stronger than they are today.

Asked about Lee, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus said, "Obviously, I think he's doing a terrible job. If you are a far-right, extremely conservative Republican, then you'd probably think he's doing a fantastic job. "

As for Lee's support among the Republican base, Remus said that's "no shock or surprise to us. We've known all along the governor would do everything he can to solidify his support amongst the conservative base in an attempt to be reelected."

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said, "I think the governor willingly or unwillingly has lived up to his conservative Trumpish bona fides, but that may not be enough for some people in his party."

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

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