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As election nears, Tennessee Gov. Lee won't debate Martin

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Less than a month before Election Day, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has no plans to participate in a debate against Democratic opponent Dr. Jason Martin.
FILE - Dr. Jason Martin listens to a question during an interview July 11, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has no plans to participate in a debate against Martin. The Republican told reporters earlier this week that he's focused on being governor. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Less than a month before Election Day, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has no plans to participate in a debate against Democratic opponent Dr. Jason Martin.

“I’m most focused on being the governor right now,” the Republican told reporters this week, a response he's repeated throughout the months when asked about the race.

Lee's decision not to share a stage with a Democratic opponent where they both could face tough questions is part of a growing trend among frontrunners across Tennessee and throughout the U.S. Lee is maintaining a huge financial advantage in the race and is considered a heavy favorite in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 15 years.

Currently, no debates are scheduled in the race over Nashville's open 5th Congressional District, a contest that has drawn national attention after Republicans redrew district lines for the seat in hopes of gaining another representative in Congress. Far-right conservative Andy Ogles has maintained a low-profile after winning the primary back in August, while Democratic hopeful Heidi Campbell says he has ignored seven different invites to various forums where face-to-face encounters could occur.

Similarly, there have been no debates between Democrat Odessa Kelly and incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Green in Tennessee's Congressional 7th District, which also includes part of Nashville.

Nearly four years ago, Lee — then a first-time political candidate — participated in three debates with Democratic opponent Karl Dean. Even then, Lee faced criticism for being too selective in the events he attended with Dean, but his campaign maintained at the time that agreeing to three debates was keeping with “Tennessee tradition.”

Martin has called Lee's refusal to debate “a reflection on his lack of leadership as governor.”

This year, Lee was unopposed in the August GOP primary, setting him up to cruise into the general election in a state Republicans have come to dominate.

When asked how seriously he was taking his reelection campaign this week, Lee demurred and instead said he was “happy and pleased” with his administration's accomplishments.

“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.

The governor has also released multiple TV advertisements. One mentions women’s health care offerings, expanded TennCare benefits for new mothers, and efforts aimed at foster care and adoption. The focus comes as Tennessee faces scrutiny for its strict abortion ban, which Lee signed and has indicated he has no plans to change. The ban contains no exceptions for rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother.

Martin's campaign, which is overmatched financially in the contest, has pushed back on Lee's ads, saying the governor has attacked marginalized communities and has been “busy dismantling education” by pointing to Lee's avid support of school vouchers and charter schools.

Latest campaign finance disclosure reports show that the Republican has nearly $3.7 million in campaign cash available, raising a little more than $557,000 between July 21 through September 30. He spent around $1.4 million during that time, with the majority of that going toward his television ads.

He also made a $25,000 contribution to organizers behind a ballot amendment that asks voters whether to change the state constitution to add Tennessee’s existing law that bans a company and a union from contracts that require workers to pay dues to the union representing them.

Martin raised around $481,000 during that same time frame and has spent nearly $300,000 of that on campaign staff, social media ads and other expenses.

Early voting in Tennessee begins Wednesday and concludes Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Kimberlee Kruesi, The Associated Press

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