Will Lee be hurt by his handling of Covid?

Frank CagleFrank Talk

In the next election cycle, one suspects how governors have handled the COVID-19 outbreak in their state will be a major issue. State leadership has been on the front lines of the pandemic, and the ways in which states have dealt with it vary widely.


How Gov. Bill Lee has handled things in Tennessee is a matter of opinion. There are those that wanted a state-mandated mask order and those who resisted. Lee took the course of urging mask uses, but leaving the mandates up to local leadership.

Frank Cagle

Given a choice, Lee has carefully protected his right flank since any challenge to his serving a second term would likely come from that direction.

Since 1978 Tennessee has had five governors who served the two terms allowed by the constitution, none of whom had serious opposition to being re-elected. (You could argue Randy Tyree was a serious candidate challenging Lamar Alexander’s second term, but Alexander won 60-40.)

These governors had the solid backing of their party and had a track record of public service. Lee came out of nowhere, with no previous experience in elective office, to defeat three candidates who had the backing of established Republican factions and the support of Republican officeholders.

Could Lee become the first one-term governor since the 1970s, or will the power of incumbency deliver him the post again? And given the usual re-election track record, will he even draw a serious challenge?

(Since I deal in realpolitik, we can safely ignore Democrats being a factor in this discussion.)

Lee has courted the most conservative elements of the Republican Party, because recent statewide elections demonstrate the only candidate he needs fear would be someone on the right.

Lee convinced the General Assembly to pass a draconian and unconstitutional abortion ban. He also got passed a voucher bill that has been ruled unconstitutional. But rather than being greeted as a foolish and needless exercise, it likely didn’t hurt him with conservatives. Refusing to issue an order on wearing masks probably pleases more conservatives than not.

There is a lot of room for criticism in Lee’s handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, depending on your point of view. But there doesn’t appear to be any widespread blame attached to the governor. Controversies tend to be local.

There are Republican officeholders who look in the mirror each morning and see gubernatorial material rather than federal legislative posts. But looking at the state’s history since 1978, potential challengers have waited four more years until the seat is vacant. That’s the most likely scenario this time as well.

How about that? The presidential race is over (somebody tell Donald Trump) and look what’s happened. The pandemic virus vaccine has arrived! It has actually been reported that Delaware is investigating Hunter Biden’s finances. Magically disappearing mail boxes have reappeared and evidently functioned well enough to deliver a huge absentee ballot total for Joe Biden. Next thing you know Congress will pass a stimulus bill.

De Nile runs through Nashville: State House Republicans continue to have caucus dinners and meetings without practicing social distancing. Fifty-five of them signed onto a resolution saying the media is overblowing the dangers of COVID-19.

Three House members have come down with the virus. They include state Rep. David Byrd who was airlifted to Vanderbilt Hospital and posted on his Facebook page that it will take a miracle to keep him off a ventilator. Byrd hosted a dinner for a group of his colleagues recently, according to the Tennessee Journal. State Reps. Kent Calfee and Mike Carter have had the disease. All three signed the resolution pooh-poohing the danger of the virus.

Legal rip-off? Amy McGrath ran for the U.S. Senate against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the most unpopular senators in America – except in Kentucky. Only three percent of McGrath’s money came from instate. The balance of her $84 million came from around the country. The dirty little secret is that political consultants in Kentucky knew she couldn’t win, but they convinced McConnell haters from around the country to contribute to his “defeat.” It’s likely consultants got $12 million of the $84 million that was contributed. McConnell won by a 20 percent margin, 58-38.

Those of you who contributed to defeat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina sent Jamie Harrison $130 million, and consultants had a chance to grab $20 million given the usual commission of 15 percent. Graham defeated Harrison by the same margin as his last electoral opponent – a guy who spent $500,000.

Contributing money to a candidate in another state you know nothing about is like investing in a stock you’ve never heard of. Don’t be surprised if you are flushing the money.

Frank Cagle is a veteran newspaper editor and columnist.

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