NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — Less than a month before Election Day, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has no plans to participate in a debate against Democratic opponent Dr. Jason Martin.
“I’m most focused on being the governor right now,” the Republican told reporters this week, a response he repeated over the months when asked about the race.
Lee’s decision not to share a stage with a Democratic opponent where they can both ask tough questions is part of a growing trend among frontrunners across Tennessee and across the US, Lee holds a huge financial advantage in the race and is considered a firm favorite in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to government office in over 15 years.
Currently, there are no debates scheduled in the race over Nashville’s open 5th congressional district, a contest that has attracted national attention after Republicans rewritten district lines for the seat in hopes of getting another representative to Congress. Far-right conservative Andy Ogles has remained stealthy after winning the primary in August, while Democratic hopeful Heidi Campbell says he has ignored seven different invitations to different forums where face-to-face meetings could take place.
Likewise, there have been no debates between Democrat Odessa Kelly and incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Green in Tennessee’s Congressional 7th District, which also includes part of Nashville.
Almost four years ago, Lee – then a first political candidate – took part in three debates with Democratic opponent Karl Dean. Even then, Lee was criticized for being too selective in the events he attended with Dean, but his campaign at the time insisted that agreeing to three debates was in line with “Tennessee tradition.”
Martin has called Lee’s refusal to debate “a reflection on his lack of leadership as governor.”
This year, Lee was unopposed in the August GOP primaries, entering the general election in a state that Republicans have come to dominate.
When asked how seriously he took his reelection campaign this week, Lee objected, saying instead that he was “happy and satisfied” with his administration’s performance.
“I’ve said it’s the highest honor I have to serve as governor, and I’m asking the people of Tennessee to give me the chance to do it for another four years,” Lee said.
The governor has also released several TV commercials. One cites women’s health care offerings, expanded TennCare benefits for new moms, and efforts focused on foster care and adoption. The focus comes as Tennessee is criticized for its strict abortion ban, which Lee signed and has indicated that he has no intention of changing. The ban contains no exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother.
Martin’s campaign, which has been outmatched financially in the contest, has pushed back Lee’s ads by saying the governor has attacked marginalized communities and “has been busy dismantling education” by pointing out Lee’s staunch support for school vouchers and charter schools.
The latest campaign finance disclosure reports show the Republican has nearly $3.7 million in campaign money available, raising just over $557,000 between July 21 and September 30. He spent about $1.4 million during that time, most of which went to his television ads.
He also contributed $25,000 to the organizers behind a vote change that asks voters whether the state constitution should be amended to add to the existing Tennessee law that prohibits a corporation and a union from contracts requiring employees to pay dues to the union that represents them.
Martin has raised about $481,000 during that same period and has spent nearly $300,000 on campaign staff, social media ads, and other expenses.
Early voting in Tennessee begins Wednesday and ends Nov. 3. Election day is November 8.
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