Outsider businessman wins Tennessee GOP governor's primary

Outsider businessman wins Tennessee GOP governor's primary
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Nashville businessman Bill Lee (R) held off a crowded field of wealthy contenders on Thursday to win the Republican nomination for governor by riding a surge in recent weeks as his rivals attacked each other. 

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Lee claimed 36.7 percent of the vote, according to a projection from The Associated Press. He beat out former state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd (R) who was in second place with 24.5 percent of the vote. Rep. Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackTrump’s endorsements cement power but come with risks The Hill's Morning Report — Trump optimistic about GOP’s midterm prospects as Republicans fret Women poised to take charge in Dem majority MORE (R), the former chairwoman of the House Budget Committee, came in third with 23 percent, with a handful of lesser-known contenders making up the rest.

Lee will face off against Karl Dean (D), the former mayor of Nashville who easily won the Democratic primary on Thursday.

Lee, a first-time candidate who made his fortune running his family's construction company, traversed the state — at times on a tractor — holding town hall meetings to introduce himself to voters.

His main rivals had more support from big names in politics. Black had support from Vice President Pence, with whom she worked in Congress, and from the National Rifle Association and the Family Research Council. Boyd had the backing of dozens of local mayors.

All four candidates painted themselves as conservative — more conservative than the term-limited governor they hope to replace, Bill Haslam — though Boyd at times cast himself as a more centrist Republican in Haslam's mold.

Black, especially, worked to tie herself to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE, through her work in Congress.

But Black and Boyd spent the last two months running virtually wall-to-wall attacks against each other, driving up their own negative ratings just as voters tuned into the race.

Meanwhile, late public polls showed Lee surging from third to first. Black and Boyd then turned their fire on the newcomer, but Lee refused to return fire. 

"All these dishonest attack ads, they're a great example of what's wrong with politics," Lee said in a response ad. "I think those ads reveal a lot more truth about the person running the ad than the person in the ad."

The race is already the most expensive in Tennessee history. The main candidates, including Democratic nominee Karl Dean, spent more than $50 million, according to the most recent campaign disclosures — much of it self-financed. 

Black put more than $12 million into her own race, while Boyd spent $19 million. Lee loaned his campaign $5.2 million, and Harwell, whose campaign never gained much traction, loaned herself $3 million. 

Dean, who is also wealthy, has put $1.4 million into the race so far.

Lee is likely to begin the general election as the front-runner to replace Haslam. The state has a long history of flipping between Democratic and Republican governors — neither party has elected consecutive governors since the 1960s — but Tennessee has grown much more conservative in recent years.

In other primaries across the state, former Gov. Phil Bredesen won the Democratic nomination for the Senate, as widely expected. He will face off against Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh and his accuser will testify publicly The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates MORE, who won the Republican nomination in the race to replace departing Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerGrassley: No reason to delay Kavanaugh hearing The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world Murkowski echoes calls for Kavanaugh, accuser to testify MORE (R).

Democrats have not won a Senate seat in Tennessee since Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAl Gore: 'This experiment with Trumpism is not going well' Protecting democracy requires action from all of us Poll: Democrat Bredesen leads GOP's Blackburn by 5 points in Tennessee Senate race MORE won reelection in 1990, before he resigned to become vice president. President Trump won the state by a 26-point margin in 2016.