Jason Martin, a Nashville physician who made health care and education a centerpiece of his campaign, secured a narrow victory in the Democratic race for Tennessee governor Friday, setting the stage for an uphill November battle against incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
Martin is likely to continue focusing on those issues as he campaigns against a popular Republican in a deeply conservative state.
Martin said, outside the state Capitol on Thursday night, he wants to pass Medicaid expansion, legalize marijuana and protect reproductive rights.
“In Tennessee, everybody understands that government does not belong in that doctor’s office,” Martin said. “Does not belong in that very personal decision between a woman, her practitioner, her family and her God.”
The Associated Press declared Martin the winner of Thursday’s primary at 11:34 a.m. CT on Friday in a race where the top two candidates were separated by less than 1 percentage point. Martin narrowly bested Memphis City Council member JB Smiley Jr.
Martin won 39.4% of the voted compared to Smiley’s 38.8%. Memphis community activist Carnita Atwater had 21.9% of the vote.
Martin defeated Smiley by fewer than 1,500 votes.
Ballot counting in Shelby County, the state’s most populous and home to a large number of Democrats, went on until early Friday morning delaying the final results.
With 99% of the vote counted in Shelby County, Smiley won big there, cutting into the early lead built statewide by Martin. In Shelby, Smiley garnered 61.4% of the vote to Martin’s received 22.7%.
By comparison, Martin led Smiley 47.8% to 33.7% in Davidson County and 46.6% to 24.1% in Knox County, where Atwater finished second with 29.3%. In Hamilton County, Smiley was on top with 43.9% of the vote.
But in the end, it wasn’t enough to overtake Martin.
Smiley conceded just before noon Friday, as he acknowledged the narrowness of his defeat.
“Coming up short by less than 1 [percentage point] isn’t what we were expecting, but to every person who casted a vote for our campaign keep your had lifted high,” Smiley said in a news release.
Smiley offered Martin his support and noted the voting strength of his home county — Shelby, which account for almost half of Smiley’s statewide total.
“Jason Martin and I agreed on several issues throughout this campaign: most importantly, that we need to beat Bill Lee in November,” Smiley said. “To my hometown of Memphis and Shelby County, I am grateful for the overwhelming support. This moment is proof of how important and powerful Shelby County is in Tennessee.”
Tennessee Democratic Party chair Hendrell Remus said Martin showed “true leadership as he battled for his patients against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“He’s seen firsthand the destruction of Bill Lee’s lack of action, and we’re prepared to throw everything behind him,” Remus said in a statement. “We are prepared to take on Bill Lee and win this election with Dr. Martin as our candidate.”
Martin against Lee, how it could play out
For Martin it will be an uphill battle to become Tennessee’s next governor. The Democratic Party hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006, and defeating an incumbent is even harder.
Tennesseans have reelected their last five governors to second terms.
Lee faced no GOP primary opposition and remains popular in the state. He has a 56% approval rating, according to a Vanderbilt University poll conducted in May, and he enters the general election campaign with a war chest of more than $4.3 million.
Martin has never held an elected office.
How the race played out
The Democratic gubernatorial campaign was relatively friendly, with none of the candidates directly attacking each other during debates or on the trail.
Smiley’s campaign focused on issues like abortion access and LGBTQ rights, while portraying himself as a more tolerant alternative to Lee.
Martin, an ICU doctor, focused his campaign on health care issues like the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and rural hospital closures.
Atwater’s campaign focused on issues like implementing a $15 minimum wage and a review of term limits and qualified immunity for judges and police officers.
- Tennessee election results:Statewide election results from Thursday night
- Nashville-area election results: Thursday night election results
- Nashville election results: See results from charter amendments, school board races
- Williamson County election results: See results from county commission, school board races
- Wilson County election results: See results from county commission, school board elections
Martin and Smiley were considered the favorites in the race based on fundraising, endorsements and campaign activity across the state. Both candidates were notable more active on the campaign trail than Atwater.
All three were ultimately united by their displeasure with Lee and Republican state lawmakers policies.
The candidates have criticized Lee on a range of issues, including his education policies.
Lee is expected to make education a central focus of his campaign. During his first term, he successfully pushed legislation to expand charter schools, school vouchers and an overhaul of the education funding formula.
The Tennessee Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that Lee’s education savings account program did not violate the state constitution by applying only to Davidson and Shelby counties.
The Lee administration has quickly worked to ramp the program back up.
On the campaign trail and at public forums, Martin said Lee’s plans weren’t working and often led to public schools losing funding.
“Lee has waged a war against public education during his entire term in office,” Martin said at a May forum at Lipscomb University. “Whether it’s threatening librarians, not speaking out against book burning, taking away local authority rights to take care of themselves during COVID or not funding them.”
The general election will be held on Nov. 8.
Melissa Brown in Nashville and Monika Scheinberg in Memphis contributed to this report.