Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor critical of Republican Gov. Bill Lee's hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, won the Democratic nomination for governor Friday and will face Lee in November.
Martin, a first-time political candidate, defeated Memphis attorney and City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. by a thin margin, with advocate Carnita Atwater finishing a distant third. Both Smiley and Atwater would have been the state's first Black gubernatorial nominee if either had won.
"We hear your message loud and clear. You're upset that Bill Lee has failed you," Martin said late Thursday, declaring victory before the race was called as he held a narrow lead in the vote count.
"He stood on the sidelines while 27,000 of our fellow Tennesseans died during the last couple of years," Martin added, referring to the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Lee was unopposed in his primary election Thursday as he looks to secure a second four-year term in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006. He trounced his Democratic opponent in 2018.
Martin jumped into the gubernatorial race last year after becoming an outspoken critic of Lee's handling of the virus outbreak. The Republican governor declined to issue a statewide mask mandate and signed off on several laws that banned most vaccine mandates as the pandemic swept across the United States, killing more than 1 million people over two years.
However, even as virus pandemic continues to spread throughout the state, the outbreak is largely not a public priority — particularly during the gubernatorial campaign. Martin is now hoping that the tumultuous national political landscape and some of Lee's recent controversies will help open a path for a Democrat to win a statewide seat.
Some of those include the ongoing fallout from the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide. Lee has expressed support for some of the strictest abortion bans in the U.S.
Most recently, Lee declined to answer questions about whether he supported tweaking the state's so-called trigger law to expand its exemptions and sidestepped directly answering whether he supported exempting children who were raped and then became pregnant.
Meanwhile, Lee received wide criticism from both sides recently after he refused to condemn disparaging remarks a charter school president made about public school teachers during a reception Lee attended. The president had said that the teachers "are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges."
Lee contended that the remarks were not directed toward Tennessee teachers but were instead focused on "activism from the left" in schools around the country.
Martin decidedly outraised and outspent Smiley, the next-highest fundraiser. Lee, however, takes a big campaign cash edge into the November midterm election.
"I really believed when I decided to run that we could make life better for every Tennessean by investing in the things that we need to," Lee said Thursday when asked about running unopposed in the primary. "I hope that Tennesseans have seen that that is the heart behind what we're doing."
Martin's campaign declared victory Thursday night even as votes were still being tallied in Smiley's hometown of Memphis. Smiley admonished Martin, saying the physician should have waited until the results were all in.
By Friday, Smiley said he was "disappointed in the results" but believed his campaign "forever changed the narrative in this state on the type of candidate that can win."
While he held off on explicitly endorsing Martin, Smiley added the two agreed that defeating Lee in the general election was imperative.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.