NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nearly four years ago, Bill Lee startled political insiders when the first-time political candidate survived a bruising and crowded $45 million GOP primary for Tennessee governor. He cruised to win the top elected state seat a few months later.
Now, the Republican businessman is enjoying a drastically different race for reelection, with much more breathing room.
Despite criticisms from within his own political party, Democrats, and advocates from multiple sides of the political spectrum, Lee faces no challengers in the August GOP primary. The state Republican Party booted two lesser-known opponents off the ballot.
That means he'll likely sail to the November general election in a state that has elected Republicans to the highest elected offices for more than 15 years. He'll face whoever wins the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where the candidates include physician Jason Martin, Memphis councilmember JB Smiley Jr. and community advocate Carnita Atwater.
Lee's campaign did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
A Tennessee governor hasn't avoided facing a primary opponent since then-Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1990. Before that, former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander ran unopposed in the 1982 primary, according to legislative historian Eddie Weeks. Both won another four years in office.
Lee navigated a first term marked by a global pandemic, and drew some backlash from conservative circles for the early economic shutdowns that were common across the country. Ultimately, he opposed a statewide mask mandate and came to defend those who refuse the vaccine, as GOP officials have largely done.
"Bill Lee has been popular during his time as governor. He started out in the low 60s, but it's kind of moved down now to mid the mid to high 50s...which most governors would covet immediately," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University dean who co-directs the school's public policy poll.
Lee sought to squash any serious opposition brewing within the party by aligning with an increasingly conservative GOP-dominated legislature, particularly on social issues. He pushed a sweeping anti-abortion ban and permitless handgun carry law, and signed off on other socially conservative policies, including those that target LGBTQ people.
Lawmakers, at times, have spiked or undermined some of the governor's top initiatives, including a push to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Lee on some occasions has also worked around their opposition, including to secure removal of the bust of former Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol.
Notably, Lee was forced to drop his plan to offer paid family leave for state workers after receiving a cool reception from Republican lawmakers. He also received heavy criticism those same GOP leaders when the governor declined to stop resettling refugees back in 2019 when given the option by former President Donald Trump.
"He's been in the enviable position where it's been clear for a while that he wasn't going to face serious electoral threat so that he's had the ability to pursue the policies that he wanted to pursue, as opposed to worried about electoral consequences of particular policies," Geer said.
Lee also has been on the ground following fatal tornadoes that have whipped through multiple parts of the state. He has declined to remove any inmates from death row while Tennessee sped up to one of the fastest states to kill inmates. Then earlier this year, he paused all executions due to testing omissions for lethal injection drugs, and ordered an independent investigator to probe how pervasive the state's problems are in following its own death penalty protocol.
Unlike some Republican predecessors, Lee has declined to flex a powerful tool — his veto stamp. Lee maintained that stance even when Republican leaders passed a measure this year to lengthen criminal sentences by requiring inmates to serve entire sentences for various felonies. Lee's administration allowed the bill to go into law despite his push to divert more people away from state prisons and expand services for those leaving incarceration.
However, his office exercises another powerful tool: executive privilege to keep government records private. Lee promised to overhaul Tennessee's public records and open meeting laws during his transition into office, but to date, no action has been taken.
One of Lee's key wins during his first terms has included rewriting how Tennessee funds its public schools. Lee's administration spearheaded an effort that attaches a set amount of money per student, a model mirrored by nearly 40 other states.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the move as sidestepping the bigger issue of funding the state's education system better, but supporters argue the new system simplified a confusing and outdated funding algorithm.
Meanwhile, Lee enacted a ban on abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy — before many women know they're pregnant. The move came as Lee has repeatedly stresses his opposition to abortion. The ban only went into effect late last month, however, following the Supreme Court's ruling ending the constitutional right to the procedure.
Lee secured another win earlier this year when Tennessee's Supreme Court ruled that his 2019 contentious school voucher law, which passed by the thinnest of margins, did not violate the state's constitution. The law, which lets families use taxpayer dollars on private schools, still has not been implemented, but Lee and other school choice advocates say they hope it will be soon.