A Top Republican Governor on How to Confront Abortion, Trump Tweets and Other Political HazardsDecember 28, 2023
For many Republicans, trying to strike a balance between the party’s often-warring factions has been a career-killer.
So far, somehow, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has managed to do just that and avoid calamity.
His conservative bona fides are hardly in dispute; he’s an outspoken evangelical Christian who lives on a cattle farm and spent decades running his family’s HVAC company. He’s kept the GOP’s right flank satisfied with legislation targeting abortion and LGBTQ rights, among other things, and he secured an endorsement from Donald Trump ahead of his successful 2022 reelection.
But over the course of his five years in office, the two-term governor has at times found himself at odds with his state’s GOP supermajority Legislature — sticking his neck out for refugee resettlement, paid family leave for state employees and, most recently, an effort to prevent mass shootings.
Lee’s brand is neither MAGA-fied nor Trump-averse. It’s perhaps a useful trait, as he tackles his next big task: Earlier this month, he was tapped to lead the Republican Governors Association ahead of a contentious election year as the party looks to keep its narrow majority of state executive offices.
In an interview with POLITICO Magazine at the Tennessee governor’s mansion, the new RGA chair said he had his eye on flipping North Carolina and holding on to New Hampshire; he said it’s “too early” to tell whether Washington state will be competitive. And he wasn’t surprised that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear recently won reelection in Kentucky, but rejected arguments that it was because of support for abortion rights.
Lee also discussed what he makes of the Trump broadsides occasionally directed against his fellow GOP governors (“I don’t think people are afraid”) and the party’s prospects in the 2024 presidential election. It’s a race that he said is winnable for Republicans — as long as the party sticks to the “fundamentals,” a word he returned to again and again and again, even as he rarely mentioned Trump.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It wasn’t that long ago that another Tennessee governor, Bill Haslam, was named RGA chairman. But a lot has happened in politics since 2017, when Trump began his presidency. Back then, you were driving a tractor around the state drawing attention to your first gubernatorial campaign. Six years later, what is something you think the Republican Party has improved upon? And how has it failed?
When I was driving a tractor around the state, I was saying, in spite of the fact that there were a lot of other issues being talked about in my election, “What really matters to people is that they have a good job and a good school for their kid and a safe neighborhood.” As I’ve repeated that line 1,000 times on the campaign trail, I still think that the fundamentals are what matter. Republicans tend to focus on issues that matter most to their citizenry, issues around the economy, low taxes, low debt.
I would say that what the Republican Party did back then when Gov. Haslam was the chairman of the RGA — and today, for the most part — the party has stayed focused on the fundamentals at its core.
Did the Republican Party get anything wrong during that time?
The mood of the country as a whole has become more divisive and more toxic than it has been in the past. It’s not related to a party. It’s related to our society in general. I don’t necessarily think people disagree more. We’ve always disagreed, and people have passionately disagreed from the time this country was created.
The last six or eight years, we’ve had social media and a 24/7 news cycle and content information rates which have dwarfed what occurred even 10 years ago, and that’s probably elevated a mood in this country that both parties have been a part of.
Republicans in the last year or so have seen losses in several states where these races have come down to abortion. Given all the difficulties Republicans are facing with the issue, how are you going to advise gubernatorial candidates to talk about abortion in some of these competitive races — in places not necessarily like Tennessee — where it could possibly shift the outcome?
You started off by saying the races came down to abortion. That’s yet to be seen, really. What a race comes down to is oftentimes not as it appears. I’ll just say that the more I’ve gotten involved in races and data and spending and issue spends and after-analysis, I’ve realized that there are a lot of things that affect races.
But clearly that issue is one that is broadly talked about and very important in American politics today. It’s one that is very difficult. So my thoughts are, “Know what you believe. Be very clear about it. And then recognize that it’s deeply personal.” This issue is much bigger and much broader than just the termination of a pregnancy. This issue is not just about the life of an unborn child, it’s about a mother, a father, a family, a circumstance. It’s about a lot of very difficult, very deeply personal issues. Families need support around them.
The Republican gubernatorial nominee in Michigan last cycle, Tudor Dixon, maintained during her campaign that there shouldn’t be exceptions for rape. Months after her loss, Dixon has since said that perhaps her message was wrong. Do candidates in difficult races need to change how they talk about it?
I think when people understand how you personally feel about this deeply personal issue, most of them then can decide what they think about you or the issue itself. I go back to: Know what you think, be very clear about it so that there’s no misunderstanding, and recognize that it’s a deeply personal but very important issue.
What happens if the Republican presidential nominee is out there telling voters, as Trump has, that some of these state-level abortion bills were “terrible” and a “mistake” to pass, while some of your candidates are out campaigning on these very types of legislation?
What governors know is that what happens in Washington politics and in presidential politics is all a part of a campaign that we are not running. And I have to stay focused on what the law is in my state and what it is that the people of Tennessee want us to do.
And to confirm, the law in your state now is no abortion, with an exception for the life of the mother but not for rape.
Your neighbor to the north, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, won reelection in Kentucky. Why do you think he won in a state that isn’t particularly blue? And does it have anything to do with abortion?
I don’t think that race was decided on abortion. Andy Beshear outspent Daniel Cameron 5 to 1 in that race. Money alone doesn’t win a campaign, but it has a tremendous impact on it, as anyone who’s involved in elections understands. That election was decided on fundamental issues, and it was argued about on fundamental issues. And at the end of the day the people decided that incumbent Gov. Beshear won on those fundamental issues.
Is there anything you think Republicans could have done differently there, besides spend five times more money?
You had a popular governor who had a lot of name recognition. Another thing that I think that’s interesting, that I’ve observed, is people like stability. They don’t want change unless they really believe that a change is necessary in their particular state, or even in a country.
We have a president who’s got historically low approval ratings, and I think we probably will see a change because people are worried enough, and frankly, it’s affecting their fundamentals in a way that they want change. I don’t think that fundamental effect had happened in the state of Kentucky to the degree that people were willing to make a change.
You’re proposing a new, wider school choice initiative in Tennessee after previously launching a limited program. We’re seeing more of this happen, mostly in Republican leaning states. Do you think the country will get to a place where school choice programs become a fairly mainstream policy with support from blue states?
I do think that there will come a day when that shift happens all across the country. I think that for a few reasons. It’s oftentimes debated very politically, but at the end of the day, it is a policy, generally, that parents like.
Washington, D.C., is a full-choice school district, and they’ve had charter schools there for a long time, and they’ve been effective. Most of these programs were initially focused on minority and low-income children who suffer the most under a status quo educational system. People don’t like change — none of us. But I was in the business world for 35 years, and my thoughts go back to business practices: If you don’t change, you fail.
During and after the 2022 cycle, we heard a lot about the issue of “candidate quality” and it being a reason some Republicans lost otherwise winnable swing state races. Are you concerned about that happening this year, where someone like Kari Lake or Doug Mastriano becomes the nominee?
Candidate quality has always mattered. Oftentimes, we tend to project what the best quality of candidate is in a particular state when the people of that state might view it differently.
Is the RGA going to get involved in any primaries?
The only primaries we have gotten involved in up to today are incumbent governors that we protect. It’s a topic of discussion within RGA, and we’ll evaluate it as it goes along, but we don’t have any plans to get involved at this point.
Speaking of candidate quality, how much does it matter who the Republican nominee for president is in November when people are deciding whether they’ll vote at all, and who they’ll vote for down ballot?
What’s most important to me is that a Republican becomes the president. I’ve already referenced it — and it’s not just my opinion — public opinion has shown that the fundamentals are something Americans are very worried about right now.
When your mortgage doubles in three years, that is a fundamental that profoundly affects people in a real way. Security — people want to feel safe, they want their kids to feel safe. They don’t feel as safe today as they felt five years ago, and that’s a real thing to people. That’s why I think we’ll probably see a change.
In the current GOP field, do you think any of them could win the general election?
I do. I think any of them would bring that recognition of fundamentals back to the office and people would be better off than they are today. And at the end of the day, that’s how people decide: “Am I better off today?” What we’re seeing is people today saying I’m not better off today than I was five years ago. I don’t feel safer. I don’t feel like I have more freedom. I don’t feel like I have more opportunity. I don’t feel like I have more money in my back pocket. I don’t feel better about where my family is today. And that includes how America stands with the world.
So it sounds like you’re not going to endorse in the Republican presidential primary.
As the chairman of the RGA, I have an obligation not to endorse.
Kim Reynolds did!
Well, on her way out. Let’s be clear, she was on her way out as chairman and did not endorse through much of that period of time. [Reynolds, the Iowa governor, served as RGA chair until Lee took over on Dec. 7. She endorsed Ron DeSantis on Nov. 7.]
I think I have a responsibility not to endorse, and primarily because my responsibility is to stay very focused on getting governors elected.
In 2020, Ron DeSantis’ own-the-libs-at-all-costs style of governing was heralded as peak gubernatorial performance. And then in 2021 and 2022, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was the hot thing, and his more measured approach was seen as the blueprint for how the Republican Party could win new voters. Today, both of their stocks have gone down nationally, and they both seem to have lost some influence in their home states. Is there a cautionary tale here? What do you make of their rise and slight descent?
Both of those guys I have a great deal of respect for. Florida and Virginia are dramatically different states. And I think when we start looking at leaders and how they lead in their individual states, the stories are going to be vastly different. I think that the mistake comes with looking at a moment in time, at a particular set of circumstances, and saying, “This is America.” It’s not. We have an ever-changing political landscape. We have an ever-changing social landscape. That’s a part of what’s remarkable about this country and unique about it.
And I also just think people are intrigued by political leaders. I think they look at Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin, and they see someone who’s leading in the midst of a very difficult circumstance, and they’re intrigued by that. They like it. People are drawn to good leadership.
Something that Republican governors in any state have in common is the risk of Trump firing off social media posts about them. Recently, DeSantis and Reynolds were in his line of fire. Previously it was governors like Brian Kemp, Doug Ducey, Chris Sununu, Larry Hogan and so on. Do you have a word of advice for governors who are concerned about this happening to them?
Every leader has their own style and their own way of leading, and I tend to be a person who lets leaders lead. I just have my own personality, I have my own set of beliefs that inform how I govern and how I lead and what I say publicly and how I communicate with people. And yet, it’s just mine. Everybody has their own, and honestly, I find myself saying you need to do it the way you want to do it.
So are Republican governors not afraid of the Trump tweets, or is this a looming fear?
These are people who are running states. Frankly, I don’t think people are afraid as much as they are just making decisions for themselves that they think are in the best interest of their own career and their own constituents.
You spent a recent weekend touring damage from another deadly tornado in your state. One of my last weeks on the job in Tennessee, I was the pool reporter when you visited a county where 20 people were killed in a flood. Your wife has spent the last year fighting cancer. Your first wife died tragically. You lost a family friend who was murdered in a school shooting this year. This has been a theme, I think, throughout your time in office, that you are a man acquainted with grief. Five years in now, how has that affected your style of governing and how you approach this job?
It’s hard to ever really say I’m glad that I’m a man acquainted with grief, but I have experienced, like most people, seasons of tragedy in my own life that informed the way I view tragedy in other people’s lives. It becomes deeply personal for me to walk up to, as I did Sunday, a man whose neighbor and their child were killed. Whose 16-year-old son was in his home with him when they were completely swept away, and who has lost every material possession, including all of his life savings, in a five-minute period of time.
It’s not about me, but when a governor walks up to your life tragedy and sits beside you, there is a hope that comes with the reality that someone knows about what’s happened to you. Probably the most poignant moments of my career as governor have been those moments.
You did what you believed to be right at a moral level and a policy level when you tried to make sure that someone like the Covenant school shooter couldn’t have access to guns to carry out that kind of an act. Republicans in the Legislature clearly didn’t see it that way and refused to take action on a bill you proposed to establish some modest restrictions. Do you think there’s any chance that today’s Republican Party will enact some of these proposals to try to protect lives?
I am a person who feels very strongly about the Second Amendment and the protection of that right for people to bear arms. I’ve always been that person. I brought constitutional carry legislation to Tennessee, and at the same time I feel like we have an obligation and a responsibility to talk about the issues that are deeply personal and very complicated. And my effort there was to elevate that conversation and say, “Is there more we should be talking about?” That was the right thing to do, to force that conversation.
At the end of the day, the legislature makes a determination of what happens in this state, and that’s the way it should work.
Do you have any plans to pursue higher office after you finish off this term?
This has been the highest honor of my life, and it’s an interesting thought to be in my second term and thinking that it will come to an end. Obviously, there’s a lot of mixed emotions about that, but I don’t have any plans to run for president.
Back to the ranch?
Back to the ranch. Back to my grandkids.