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 BlackBottom line Overnight Health Care: Anti-abortion Democrats take heat from party | More states sue Purdue over opioid epidemic | 1 in 4 in poll say high costs led them to skip medical care Lamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee 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.

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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 TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party 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.

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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 BlackburnHillicon Valley: Senators highlight security threats from China during rare public hearing | Facebook suspends accounts of NYU researchers who've criticized platform Senators press Zuckerberg over Facebook's impact on youth mental health New hurdle slows trillion infrastructure bill MORE, who won the Republican nomination in the race to replace departing Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R).

Democrats have not won a Senate seat in Tennessee since Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreREAD: Cuomo's defense against sexual harassment investigation McAuliffe calls on Youngkin to drop out of 'election integrity' rally Anything-but-bipartisan 1/6 commission will seal Pelosi's retirement. Here's why MORE won reelection in 1990, before he resigned to become vice president. President Trump won the state by a 26-point margin in 2016.