Bill Lee’s story, his faith and his refusal to air attack ads resonated with voters
AUGUST 3, 2018
NASHVILLE – Lingering rock music played from the speakers of the fading election night party of Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Lee on Thursday night as a crowd of supporters congratulated the candidate on his primary victory.
Most were enthused — all were optimistic — but some were still a bit shocked.
“This is, well, amazing,” one person told a Lee campaign spokesperson he pulled aside before disappearing back into the crowd. “No man, I mean it, amazing.”
The surprise of the night came not only from Lee’s victory, but especially the margin, leaving many to wonder how it came to be.
But as the the race turned negative, many, including the candidates, say it was Lee’s positive, faith-based message that resonated with voters.
A surprising margin
Lee beat out his nearest contender, former economic development commissioner Randy Boyd, 37 percent to 24 percent, followed by U.S. Rep. Diane Black at 23 percent and House Speaker Beth Harwell at 15 percent.
In May 2017, near the beginning of the campaign, Black led the candidates in name recognition, with 49 percent of registered voters knowing of her, according to a Vanderbilt University poll.
Just 14 percent of those polled recognized Lee.
With sizable name recognition and a conservative voting record, Black was the apparent front-runner.
Meanwhile, Boyd played a prominent role in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration as a commissioner bringing in business to the state and helping to develop Haslam’s popular Tennessee Promise initiative to fund free community college. Boyd was a close second in name recognition last year.
Boyd and Black shared a lead in the polls in the early months — some showing an advantage of 15 points or more between themselves and Lee.
Then came the money.
In the most expensive governor’s race in Tennessee history, Boyd spent $21.07 million, Black spent $13.83 million and Lee spent $7.05 million.
So how did Lee, owner of Williamson County-based Lee Company — a heating, air, plumbing and electrical company — best Black and Boyd?
Analysts have looked to the increasingly negative tone of the race toward its latter days for answers. As attack ads first flew between the Black and Boyd campaigns, Lee abstained.
But as Lee rose in the polls ads targeting him went on the air. The Black campaign criticized him for donating to former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, what Lee later called a business decision. The Black campaign also accused the Lee Company of mistreating veterans because of a lawsuit from a veteran and former employee.
Boyd attacked Lee in an ad saying Lee was once president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, which recommended permanent residence for undocumented immigrants who had demonstrated a positive work history. But Lee was president before the recommendation.
Lee decided not to launch his own attack ads in response.
“Our campaign is having a real surge in momentum, and it’s evidenced by I’m the only candidate actually being attacked by everyone,” Lee said July 18 when he went to vote early in Williamson County.
“And so that shows that we have momentum and people are believing the message and understanding my vision.
“Deceptive attack ads, to me, it’s everything that’s wrong with politics,” Lee said. “I’m not going to go there. It’s not who I am.”
In fact, it was shortly after the attack ads aired that Lee’s rise in polls became more pronounced, indicating voters’ own negative reactions.
“I saw all the backstabbing accusations,” said Dolores Mackey, 70, a Mt. Juliet resident and a supporter of Harwell. “I’m just sick of it.”
Longtime Republican strategist Tom Ingram successfully ran political campaigns for U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, Gov. Don Sundquist, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Haslam. He said he had never seen a race tighten up like this one.
Ingram said the race began to change slowly, then things began to “come unglued” for Boyd when he started running attack ads against Black and Lee.
“You’ve always had to be careful with negative advertising because it usually drags up the attacker’s negatives and you hope it drives up the target’s negatives more,” he said.
Harwell’s poll numbers were thought to have risen leading up to the primary for this reason as well.
Through this gap, Lee found a path to victory. Lee refused to go negative and steered clear of other fights that could have pushed him off message.
Even Black campaign spokesman Chris Hartline gave Lee a nod for staying disciplined.
“Some of (Black’s) opponents and the outside groups started attacking Diane early. There was a, you know, regular onslaught pretty much from the beginning against her,” Hartline said. “And, you know, Bill Lee found a way to kind of come up through the middle.
“You gotta give kudos to him for figuring out that strategy and getting it done at the end of the day,” Hartline said.
Faith, personal story became cornerstone of campaign
Lee’s television ads touched on many of the same topics his rivals did: immigration, the Second Amendment and social issues, such as abortion.
In Lee’s town hall speeches, he focused on issues closer to home — jobs in rural communities, education reform directed toward training more skilled labor and even prison reform to better re-entry after prison.
But by far, the cornerstone of his campaign was Lee’s own personal story that he told at every town hall and forum across the state — his personal tragedy in the death of his first wife of 16 years, Carol Ann, and how it drew him closer to God.
“My faith is the most important thing in my life, and that won’t change when I’m the governor,” he said in one ad, set in front of the South Harpeth Church of Christ where Lee attended as a child.
“In recent times, too often the voice of the faithful has been made to feel increasingly unwelcome in the public square, and that’s a mistake,” he said. “The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ has been twisted. It was intended to keep the government out of church, but not to keep people of faith out of the government.”
He said the governor’s office is a “calling.”
Even some of Lee’s most high-profile supporters have deep connections to the faith community. Notable names include Christian music recording artist Michael W. Smith, for instance.
As Lee’s success rose, the other campaigns noticed.
Boyd’s ads mellowed in the final days of the campaign, somewhat mirroring Lee’s.
One named “Cut the Noise” depicted Boyd with a calm voice.
“It’s time to cut the noise and get to what’s important,” Boyd said in the ad. “It’s in the quiet stillness of the day I pray, I seek God’s wisdom and I listen.”
In the end, it was too late.
In the days leading up to the August primary, polls showed Lee with a pronounced lead, rallies were drawing hundreds, and many had bought into Lee’s closest connection to them, their faith.
Brent Leatherwood, the former executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party and now strategic partnerships director for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Lee’s faith is a “big part of his life.”
“That very well could have registered as authentic to Tennesseans and been a factor for them in deciding who to support,” Leatherwood said.
“More broadly, though, Lee ran a positive campaign, refused to go negative when everything suggested he should, and he was able to harness the enthusiasm voters had and turn it into votes,” Leatherwood said. “Clearly, running a campaign like that spoke to not only evangelicals but Tennesseans of all backgrounds.”
When election results arrived at the Lee campaign election party at The Factory at Franklin on Thursday night, supporters said their prayers had been answered.
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