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Bill Lee Stuns Field, Wins GOP Nomination for Tennessee Governor

Meribah Knight / WPLN

Williamson County businessman Bill Lee was the surprise winner of the Republican primary for governor Thursday night.

The Christian conservative and owner of the Lee Co. beat out former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, Congressman Diane Black and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

According to the uncertified election results at the end of the night, Lee won with 36.8 percent of the vote. Boyd took second with 24.3 percent — nearly 100,000 votes behind him. Black came in right behind him at 23 percent. And Harwell took a distant fourth at 15.3 percent.

For much of the campaign, Lee appeared to be the third-place candidate. But he closed quickly in the latter stages, stunning even some of his supporters, like 26-year-old Casey Chilson, who attended Lee's election night watch party in Franklin.

"I'm a little surprised just because a couple of weeks ago, it didn't seem that way at all," he said. "I think if anything, some of the mudslinging got attention on him."

The Lee campaign spent far less than Black or Boyd. But unlike them, Lee largely focused on the positive, fashioning himself as an outsider businessman. Lee alluded to that approach in his victory speech.

"We didn't go down that road, and I'm not going to start now," he said.

Lee now faces former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the general election, who beat Craig Fitzhugh by more than 200,000 votes. 

The governor's office has flip-flopped between the parties in Tennessee for the past half century. Lee hopes to break that pattern.

Credit Blake Farmer/WPLN
Congressman Diane Black took the stage with her husband, GOP fundraiser David Black, and her children and grandchildren.

The Concession Speeches

Lee's come-from-behind win left some candidates a bit dazed during their concession speeches. Congressman Diane Black reminded her crowd of supporters at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel that she had been on the ballot 18 times before, and always won.

"God sometimes has a different plan for us. We may not understand tonight, but I believe God has a plan for me and God has a plan for this great state," she said.

Black endorsed Lee, calling him a "good man who will make a principled governor."

Randy Boyd noted that he and Lee had attended enough forums together that they can already perform each other's stump speech, if needed. Boyd also said Lee would make a good governor, and joked that he can now speak more freely.

Credit WUOT
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd and his wife Jenny stood together to give a concession speech in which he made jokes and endorsed Bill Lee.

"My campaign manager Chip Saltsman made me not say it, but I used to say all the time, 'You know, I really don't want to be governor. I've just got a certain few things I want to get accomplished, and being governor is the best way to do it,'" he recalled to the crowd in Knoxville. "And Chip would say, 'No no, you want to be governor. Don't say that any more.'"

Boyd outspent the other candidates, putting nearly $20 million of his own money into the race.

Beth Harwell noted that it was likely her last act in state government after a 30-year career in the legislature.

"It has been an experience I will always treasure, and I leave my public service in state government with this state in tremendous condition," she said.

Harwell was the only Republican candidate not to specifically endorse Bill Lee for the general election. She said later it was "a little early to be talking about that."

Positive Campaign Promises

Just as Lee implied he wouldn't go negative during the general election, so did former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean on the Democratic side.

Dean, who won a solid victory with nearly 80 percent of the vote, said his campaign will be more direct from now on, but he intends to keep running it on positive messages.

In his victory speech, Dean thanked his main party rival, state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, for running what he called a “spirited, gentlemanly” campaign. He said in the run-up to the general election in November, he'll be focusing on the “forgotten Tennessee,” parts of the state that aren’t doing as well as Nashville, including Memphis.

Dean admits his name recognition is highest in Middle Tennessee, but says he’s been campaigning throughout the state for the past year and a half. 

"I think our state’s more moderate than people really understand, and I think the people want somebody who’s going to be practical and pragmatic and get things done, and focus on the issues that really matter to voters, education and healthcare and economic opportunity," he said.

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