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Red and blue all over

Unexpected primary winners punctuate tight battles between Republicans and Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections

Red and blue all over

(Krieg Barrie)

On a warm September morning, Bill Lee was making phone calls from a campaign bus en route to meet with members of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in Memphis, Tenn.

The visit was one of dozens of campaign stops the GOP candidate made in recent months, barnstorming the Volunteer State as the unlikely front-runner in the race for governor of Tennessee.

Lee has never held public office, he’s never attempted a bid in politics, and unlike his Republican opponents, he didn’t run attack ads in his successful bid for the GOP nomination for governor.

Some pundits called Lee’s decision to go positive a political strategy. Lee says it was more a personal conviction: “I very much knew that regardless of how this campaign turned out … I wanted to be able to go back into my community and my family the same person I was when I started to run.”

In early May, Lee had the lowest name recognition among the candidates running for the GOP spot. By primary night on Aug. 2, he toppled Randy Boyd, a former state economics commissioner, and U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a well-known Republican congresswoman endorsed by Vice President Mike Pence.

In September, polls showed Lee with a 13-point lead over Democratic opponent and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

Meanwhile, another Tennessee Republican struggled. In the race for the Senate, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a well-known Republican congresswoman endorsed by President Donald Trump, was in a dead heat with Democratic opponent and former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen.

That race turned prickly, with Blackburn running an ad showing footage of Trump denouncing Bredesen during a campaign rally: “Phil, whatever the hell his name is, this guy will 100 percent vote against us every single time.” Bredesen’s press secretary returned fire, saying Blackburn was following the “losing D.C. Diane playbook”—a reference to Rep. Black’s primary loss in the race for governor.

Tennessee is one of only a few states with Republican-held Senate seats that Democrats think they possibly could win in November, though some political observers still consider a Democratic victory unlikely: Trump won Tennessee with 60 percent of the votes in 2016.

Blackburn: Alex Wong/Getty Images • Bredesen: Mark Humphrey/AP

U.S. Senate | Tennessee: Marsha Blackburn (R) vs. Phil Bredesen (D) (Blackburn: Alex Wong/Getty Images • Bredesen: Mark Humphrey/AP)

Overall, winning the Senate may be unlikely for Democrats in November’s midterm elections, while clinching a majority in the House seems more possible. (Stay tuned for coverage of House races in an upcoming issue.)

For now, a handful of candidates gaining unexpected success in a few key races for both governor and Senate underscores that pollsters still aren’t prophets, voters still aren’t monolithic, and political playbooks may be rewritten ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. 

ON THE WAY TO MEET FARMERS in Memphis, Bill Lee reflected on how the road toward his unlikely bid for governor began with a tragedy on his own family farm nearly two decades ago.

On a summer evening in 2000, Lee was standing in a cattle barn with his young son, when he heard his 4-year-old daughter scream. A few minutes earlier, Lee had waved to his wife, Carol Ann, while she rode horseback with their little girl in a nearby pasture.

Now Lee sped toward the sound of his daughter’s cries and found his wife lying on the ground, unconscious and bleeding from her mouth. In a fall from the horse she had been riding, Carol Ann suffered head injuries that would end her life in a few days. She was 40 years old. The couple had four children ages 14 to 4.

Lee remembers standing in a hospital room next to his wife and turning to a passage from the book of Job that they had read a couple of weeks earlier during an idyllic family vacation out West. The passage described the wonders of God’s creation, but it also included God telling Job: “Brace yourself like a man.”

With his wife dying next to him, Lee sensed God’s assurance that He was the same on the worst day of Lee’s life as He had been on one of the best days of his life two weeks before. Lee says he didn’t feel comfort at that terrible moment, but he did feel he wasn’t alone.

The years ahead brought deep grief and painful adjustments to the single dad and his four children. He clung to his faith in Christ, leaned into the help of his church family, and began realizing the brevity of life.

“It was a tragic season that was actually very transformational,” he said during a phone call from the campaign trail. “The result of that was a perspective change about how I lived my life.”

He went on mission trips with his kids. He mentored a man coming out of prison through the Nashville-based prison ministry Men of Valor. He says he also spent one evening a week for five years mentoring another young man from the inner city: “That’s where I started thinking about public service.”

For Lee, ideas about public service if he reaches the governor’s office include finding ways for government agencies to partner with faith-based groups and nonprofits working on the ground level to address problems like poverty and recidivism.

As a businessman running a company of 1,200 employees, Lee says he’s also interested in bolstering vocational training for Tennesseans who don’t go to college. (His own company relies on skilled workers, and Lee said it was so difficult to find qualified employees, the business started its own trade school 10 years ago.)

When it comes to campaigning, Lee, who remarried in 2008, tries to guard Sundays for spending time with his wife, Maria, and they stay connected to their local church, Grace Chapel in Franklin, Tenn.

He’s been vocal about his Christian faith during his campaign: “I tell people, ‘If you’re going to consider voting for me for governor, you ought to know everything about me as a person. And the most important thing to this person is my relationship with Christ.”

So, when it came time to consider campaign plans, Lee says he and Maria decided up front, “We weren’t going to go negative.” That’s a tough calculation in a political climate where campaign ads fight for attention, and where attack ads can be effective. When his Republican opponents, Black and Boyd, started trading barbs and aiming some at him, Lee steered clear.

Sanford Myers/AP

Bill Lee leads his wife Maria to the stage before speaking at a GOP rally in Nashville. (Sanford Myers/AP)

That might be harder to do in Senate races tied to contentious, national issues. And sometimes negative ads do point out legitimate concerns about an opponent’s views. But in this particular contest, going positive seemed to resonate with Tennessee voters.

Either way, Lee doesn’t paint himself as the perfect candidate or man. “That’s the beauty of a real relationship with God,” he wrote in his book This Road I’m On. “He gives grace and forgiveness for our weaknesses and failures, and strength and courage to begin anew.”

IF BILL LEE ONCE SEEMED UNLIKELY to win the GOP nomination against better-known candidates in Tennessee, Republican John Cox might seem just as unlikely to be running a competitive race in his bid for California governor.

The businessman originally from Chicago isn’t new to politics—Cox has unsuccessfully run for U.S. House and Senate, and for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. But he’s a relative newcomer to California, moving to the state full-time just six years before declaring his bid for governor in 2017.

Cox placed second in the state’s open primary in June, sparing the GOP from going into the November elections without a Republican candidate on the gubernatorial ballot. Placing first in the primary: Democrat Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who directed the city to issue same-sex marriage licenses in 2004 and helped pave the way for the legalization of gay marriage nationwide.

If Newsom once seemed a shoo-in for governor in the deep-blue state, Cox has become a surprising foe: An early September poll showed Newsom leading Cox by just 6 points, with 17 percent of polled voters undecided in their votes. (Other polls showed Newsom with a wider lead.)

That’s a substantial showing for Cox in a state where Republicans make up 25 percent of registered voters, compared with 44 percent for Democrats. Some 25 percent of voters listed “no party preference” in a report from the California secretary of state, suggesting a steep but not impossible hill for a Republican to climb in order to prevail in statewide contests.

Newsom largely has positioned his bid for California governor as a national battle against President Trump: “It looks like voters will have a real choice this November—between a governor who is going to stand up to Donald Trump and a foot soldier in his war on California.”

Cox has focused on the issues he says are the most problematic within the state itself, including unaffordable housing, high taxes, and rising homelessness. Although he’s earned Trump’s endorsement, Cox voted for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2016 election. Cox has since said he voted for Johnson because he wasn’t sure in 2016 if Trump was a conservative. “I am [sure] now,” he told a debate audience in May. “He’s a conservative.”

Newsom: Gregory Bull/AP • Cox: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Governor | California: Gavin Newsom (D) vs. John Cox (R) (Newsom: Gregory Bull/AP • Cox: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Trump’s endorsement of Cox came after the candidate expressed confidence in the president, and it underscored Trump’s awareness of how significant it would be if a Republican retook the governor’s seat in a state where Trump won just 31.5 percent of the vote in 2016.

Indeed, a Republican who is also a staunch pro-life advocate would be a remarkable turn for California.

In a recent sit-down with California mega-church Pastor Greg Laurie at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., Cox said his pro-life convictions stem from his own background: He says he was conceived as a result of his mother enduring a date rape. “If abortion had been legal in 1955, she might have taken that option,” Cox said. “I’m glad the law protected me.”

The pastor didn’t ask Cox about gay marriage, but he did inquire about a recently shelved California bill that would have made unlawful certain types of counseling for adults seeking help for unwanted same-sex attraction. Cox said he opposed the bill: “I just think people ought to have the freedom to choose whatever therapy they want to choose.”

WHILE DEMOCRATS ARE LIKELY to pick up more gubernatorial races this fall, the majority of governor seats look set to remain in Republican hands.

Still, some pundits are watching other unusual gubernatorial contests, including the showdown in Florida between former Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis and the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.

DeSantis grabbed a primary endorsement from Trump against state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and he expressed enthusiastic support for the president during his primary bid. His television ads included DeSantis showing his toddler how to “build a wall” with toy blocks and reading Trump’s book The Art of the Deal to his infant son. (The ad also showed the baby wearing a “Make America Great Again” onesie in his crib.)

Gillum: Chris O’Meara/AP • Desantis: Octavio Jones/The Tampa Bay Times via AP

Andrew Gillum campaigns with Bernie Sanders (left); President Trump greets Ron DeSantis at a Tampa rally (right) (Gillum: Chris O’Meara/AP • Desantis: Octavio Jones/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Trump’s endorsement likely gave DeSantis the primary win, but Trump may cool on DeSantis after the candidate rebutted Trump’s recent claim that the Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico had been inflated. (The president blamed Democrats.) DeSantis—running in a state with a substantial number of Puerto Ricans—said he didn’t believe the loss of life was inflated.

It may seem like a small flap, but if the dustup keeps Trump from continuing to speak out for DeSantis in the run-up to November, it could hurt the candidate in a tight race against Gillum—the Democratic candidate endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Meanwhile, another tight race unfolds in the Sunshine State for the Senate: Florida is one of the states where Republicans could pick up a Democratic seat in the midterms. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has been in a dead heat with Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a state where Trump eked out a victory in 2016 by less than 2 points. Both parties will watch this race closely to see who will control key offices ahead of the 2020 presidential elections in the longtime swing state.

Scott: John Raoux/AP • Nelson: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

U.S. Senate | Florida: Rick Scott (R) vs. Bill Nelson (D) (Scott: John Raoux/AP • Nelson: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Other Senate races worth watching include Democrats defending seats in states Trump won in 2016. In Indiana, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly has maintained a slight edge in a race in Vice President Mike Pence’s home state. One recent press release for the Democratic incumbent announced: “Joe Donnelly, Indiana Republicans launch ‘Republicans for Joe’ in Indianapolis.”

Democrats are trying hard to hang on to the North Dakota seat held by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Montana seat held by Sen. Jon Tester, and the Missouri seat held by Sen. Claire McCaskill. For Republicans, Arizona and Nevada remain high priorities to defend against Democratic challenges.

For many conservatives, one of the most interesting Senate races to watch is unfolding in the Lone Star State: Polls go back and forth, but in mid-September one poll showed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly trailing Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke.

The loss would be a huge upset for Republicans, even as Cruz tries to stay cool about his tight race less than two months before the election. When activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) showed up at one of his campaign events, Cruz jokingly warned Texans of the stakes of the election: “If Beto wins, BBQ will be illegal!”

Those are serious stakes for Texans, but all jokes aside, a wide swath of races in the midterms carries significant stakes in a string of contests for power that will likely remain unpredictable until November.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.