Tennessee GOP Leaders Expecting Crowded Field in 2018 Governor’s Race

By Bill Dries

Former Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd got two mentions last Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Greater Memphis Chamber’s breakfast forum – one from guest speaker U.S. Rep. David Kustoff and another from chamber president Phil Trenary.

Former Tennessee Economic and Community Development commissioner Randy Boyd is weighing a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018, but is already building local support in the backyard of another likely contender, state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

And Boyd was making lots of introductions at the local Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Gala later in the week with help from a group of Memphis politicos.

Boyd isn’t officially in the race for governor in 2018 just yet. But he’s spending a lot of time in Memphis with an organization of local Republicans and drawing some attention for what amounts to a challenge to state Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville in Norris’ backyard.

State Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville is already a candidate in the Republican primary. U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin is also weighing a bid in the primary. Green and Black were also in Memphis last week for the gala.

There is a potential five- or six-candidate GOP field at the outset.

“It’s going to be a crowded Republican primary,” Tennessee Republican Party chairman Scott Golden said. “We’re anticipating probably the most expensive Republican primary field. It shows that we’ve got a great state that’s been managed well.”

Golden is emphasizing the party’s chance to follow a term-limited Republican governor with a new Republican governor for the first time since 1869.

That’s when Republican Senate Speaker Dewitt Clinton Senter followed Republican Gov. William Brownlow when Brownlow resigned to become a U.S. senator. Senter was elected as governor later that year.

Since 1970 when Memphian and Republican Winfield Dunn was elected governor, the nominee of one party has followed the nominee of the other party in winning open elections with no incumbent. An incumbent governor has never been defeated in a re-election bid during that time.

Running an effective statewide campaign takes a lot of money because of the state’s geography. Television advertising is essential, combined with a big organization even if a contender doesn’t go with an organizational presence in all 95 of the state’s counties. And television doesn’t mean there is no roadwork.

There is plenty of that in a state that spans two time zones. It takes two days minimum to make a swing across Tennessee with meaningful time spent beyond airport stops. The state’s easternmost tip is closer to Canada – physically and culturally – than it is to Memphis in the westernmost tip of the state.

The annual Shelby County Lincoln Day Gala is where Nashville businessman Bill Lee began his exploration of the governor’s race a year ago. And he was back this year.

“That was our first step in this journey and we have been traveling the state meeting folks and listening,” he said at the Saturday, Feb. 25 gala. “I’m strongly considering and close to making that decision.”

Lee is chairman of Lee Company, a home services business his grandfather founded in 1944 in Franklin. The company offers plumbing, HVAC repair, electrical work, home improvements and home security as well as managing commercial, industrial and institutional facilities.

“The same things matter to all Tennesseans,” he said of issues he thinks are central to the 2018 race. “Can I have a good job? Can my kid get a good education? Is my neighborhood safe?”

Lee expects to make his decision sometime in the spring and said it won’t be influenced by a large field.

“This is really about my decision to do this based on what I feel called to do based on the purpose and the reason behind my decision to do this,” he said. “It’s really not determined on who else is running.”

In 2010, the last time there was a race for Tennessee governor with no incumbent, the Democratic and Republican hopefuls began campaigning in earnest in January 2009. That early surfacing of a Republican primary field came after former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist announced just after New Year’s Day in 2009 that he would not be running for governor.

Meanwhile, Nashville businessman Bill Freeman, a fundraiser for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and chairman of her statewide campaign in 2016, said Monday he won’t be running for governor in 2018.

Freeman is backing Democratic state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley who is still weighing the race.

Former Nashville mayor Karl Dean made it formal Monday, appointing Memphian Calvin Anderson as treasurer of his bid for the Democratic nomination.