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 BlackLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Juan Williams: The GOP's worsening problem with women How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit 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 TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border 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 BlackburnTrump’s new Syria timetable raises concern among key anti-ISIS allies Dem lawmaker invites Parkland survivor to attend State of the Union Bipartisan senators press Trump for strategy to protect Syrian Kurds MORE, who won the Republican nomination in the race to replace departing Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (R).

Democrats have not won a Senate seat in Tennessee since Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreOvernight Energy: Trump ends talks with California on car emissions | Dems face tough vote on Green New Deal | Climate PAC backing Inslee in possible 2020 run New climate PAC will back Inslee for president Howard Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 MORE won reelection in 1990, before he resigned to become vice president. President Trump won the state by a 26-point margin in 2016.