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.