Lee ignores gubernatorial debate challenge from Martin

Republican Gov. Bill Lee barely responded Tuesday when asked if he would debate Democratic candidate Dr. Jason Martin before the Nov. 8 election.

Questioned about whether he would go head to head with Martin to give Tennessee voters a chance to see them on stage together, Lee said, “I’m most focused on being the governor right now.”

Speaking after a ceremony for Dismas House, a nonprofit prison release program in Nashville, Lee declined to say how seriously he takes the race with the Democratic challenger, noting only that he is “happy and pleased” with the work his administration has done. Lee recently kicked off his campaign with a TV ad.

“I’ve said it’s the highest honor I have to serve as governor, and I’m asking the people of Tennessee to give me an opportunity to do it four more years,” Lee said Tuesday. “It’s an incredibly important thing. It matters who governs, so it’s an incredibly important opportunity I have and I continue to pursue it.”

Lee isn’t the only Republican candidate to refuse a debate or media interviews this fall. Multiple Republican candidates for key offices in Tennessee have declined to debate their Democratic opponents.

Martin, a physician who narrowly won the Democratic primary, challenged Lee again in a Tuesday afternoon press conference on education to debate him, as Lee did with 2018 Democratic nominee Karl Dean. Martin has sought a debate repeatedly in recent weeks.

“I think it’s really poor form that the governor refuses to have a debate,” Martin said. “I think the people of Tennessee deserve and expect a conversation about his record. Last time he ran, he had no problem debating Karl Dean. Of course, at that time, he didn’t have a record to defend.”

Martin noted Lee has been on conservative talk radio in Williamson County and attended a 90-minute forum at a local church.

“He’s got the time to do it, it’s just whether or not he has the interest to do it,” Martin said, before reiterating his request to have a “respectful discussion” about the governor’s record. 

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