State Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee offered two different visions of the future of Tennessee and the role of the job they are both seeking–governor-at the annual Williamson County Republican Party BBQ held in Thompson’s Station on Saturday.
Each candidate spoke to the record crowd of 400 in attendance for about ten minutes, delivering the current version of their respective campaign stump speeches.
Beavers, who has served in the Tennessee General Assembly since 1994, first in the House of Representatives and now in the State Senate, focused on enacting an agenda of conservative policies.
She favors repealing the recent gas tax increase, promoting Second Amendment rights by pledging to sign a constitutional carry law, opposes in-state tuition for illegal aliens, and stands by her proposal to limit access to public bathrooms by gender.
Bill Lee focused more on his personal qualities of leadership as opposed to a specific set of commitments to enact conservative policies.
Lee emphasized his personal story, including the tragic death of his first wife, his role building up Lee Company, one of the premiere heating and cooling companies in the state, and his personal Christian faith.
The Williamson County businessman has specifically stated he will not work to repeal the gas tax increase, calling it “water under the bridge now,” and has made no specific formal policy announcements yet on constitutional carry, in-state tuition for illegals, or the public access to bathrooms by gender bill.
His one major policy proposal, a rural initiative announced last week, has “four major policy initiatives,” which The Tennessee Star reported include:
1. Promote the dignity of work and economic independence. (a) invest early in vocational, technical and agricultural education to increase the number of high school graduates ready to work, (b) strengthen work requirements for social programs to lead Tennesseans out of dependency and (c) reform state licensing laws to eliminate unnecessary government regulations that create a barrier to work for our citizens.
2. Support innovation and technology to improve economic, health and educational opportunities. (a) reduce the tax burden for small businesses to reward entrepreneurship and investment in rural communities, (b) expand the availability of health care options through innovative investments in telemedicine and rural health residency incentives and (c) develop technology solutions to help rural schools deliver on their educational goals.
3. Attack the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction (a) seek significantly stronger penalties for drug traffickers, (b) invest in sustainable, community-based options that give non-violent addicts a path back to society and (c) crack down on the taxpayer funding of addictive drugs.
4. Strengthen our state’s commitment to faith, community, and family (a) increase our support for civic and character education to help our schools build the next generation of productive citizens, (b) strengthen our support for children in need, particularly at DCS and in our juvenile justice system and (c) ensure that state policies are protecting and encouraging strong families and communities.
Bill Lee has made his Christian faith a central theme of his campaign, a faith that by all accounts is sincere.
The question is whether he is putting it front and center because that is his personal belief, or is he trying to appeal to that political base in the Republican primary, or a combination of the two?
In that regard, Lee faces the same kinds of problems in the 2018 Tennessee Republican gubernatorial primary that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) faced in the 2016 Republican presidential primary:
Does he want to be the head of the executive branch of the government (state in Lee’s case, federal in Cruz’s case) or does he want to be the head pastor?
“Faith-based voters won’t get actively engaged simply because a candidate proclaims himself to be the choice — they want to see works not just words. So far, Lee has been light on specifics when it comes to where he stands on key issues and even said that ‘social issues won’t be a priority’ for him. Lee needs to offer more substance and detail if he wants to secure the support of the Christian voter base across the state,” media consultant and political analyst Steve Gill tells The Star.
While Beavers clearly has the inside edge among ideological conservatives who will be voting in the Republican primary, she lags the field considerably in one key area: fundraising.
In the first reporting period, she raised only $37,000, about 3 percent of the $1.375 million raised by Lee during the same period and barely 1 percent of the $2.3 million raised by Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, the other announced candidate for the Republican nomination, who “added $2 million of his own money in his bid for governor,” as the Associated Press reported:
Boyd ended June with $3.5 million cash left.
Williamson County Republican businessman Bill Lee’s campaign says he raised about $1.4 million for the race and matched that amount with personal money. He finished June with $2.5 million remaining. Lee started running in late April.
Unlike Boyd and Lee, who have been preparing to run for governor for over a year, Beavers’ decision to run for governor, and her announcement, are relatively recent events, so she is much earlier on the fundraising curve than they are. Still, the gap between her current level of funding and the cash available to Lee, Boyd, the recently announced Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell (R- Nashville) and the likely to announce soon Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) is significant and will not be easy to overcome.
“There is no question that Mae Beavers has to overcome a huge fundraising hurdle to be a viable candidate, regardless of how much more in tune she is with Tennessee voters on the issues than the other candidates,” political analyst Gill tells The Star.
“But this first reporting period is not the end of the story on her fundraising capabilities. All of the other candidates have been plotting, preparing and lining up fundraising support for a year or more in advance of launching while Mae announced one day and started putting together a campaign the next. So it is not surprising that just a few weeks later she didn’t report a huge war chest of money raised. The question is whether she can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in this next quarter in order to be a credible option heading into 2018,” Gill adds.
All three of the other announced or likely Republican candidates-Boyd, Harwell, and Black–were invited to attend the Williamson County BBQ, but chose not to attend.
Lee easily won the gubernatorial straw poll conducted at the event, which included all five announced or likely candidates, with 63 percent of the vote, followed Beavers, who finished in second place with 26 percent of the vote.