Everybody knew Bill Haslam was the favorite to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination, but even the Knoxville mayor himself was surprised by how quickly and convincingly he sewed up victory Thursday night.
Less than an hour after the polls had closed, The Associated Press declared Haslam the winner.
“It was a little better than I was expecting, to be quite frank,” he told reporters at the Hilton Nashville Downtown hotel where his family and supporters gathered to watch the returns. “So we’re very, very pleasantly surprised. The word humbled sounds trite, but it’s really true.”
Almost half the 725,000 voters who picked up a ballot in the Republican primary voted for Haslam, giving him 47 percent of the vote. According to election results from WKRN, 29 percent of voters chose Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp, leaving 22 percent voting for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville and 1 percent each for internet phenom Basil Marceaux, Sr., and Joe Kirkpatrick, who officially dropped out of the race and endorsed Ramsey last spring.
No one issue drove opposition to Haslam’s bid than his opponents’ — especially Wamp — criticism of his family’s national line of truck stops, Pilot Oil, and the Knoxville mayor’s refusal to disclose his profits from the company.
Yet in the end the attacks did little to slow the his lavishly funded campaign juggernaut.
Haslam continually pointed to his leadership with the business to illustrate his ability to balance a budget and create jobs — even while his competitors painted his family’s business as a conflict of interest for a Tennessee governor.
“I’m proud of Pilot,” Haslam told reporters after he accepted the Republican nomination. “Wouldn’t any governor want a company like Pilot headquartered in Tennessee? I think the answer is yes. If somebody thinks differently, they should say so.”
Wamp fought some of his own battles, including attacks on his Congressional voting record. He also was quoted as saying he would consider a possible Tennessee succession from the United States if the federal government continues to manage the states. He later came off that message, saying that wasn’t exactly what he meant.
Ramsey attracted a significant faction of Tea Party voters with his message about shrinking state government and telling the federal government to stay out of Tennessee’s business. But his message wasn’t enough to sway enough voters to his side. He will retain his legislative post as lieutenant governor and leader of the state Senate.