NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — 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.