Bill Haslam is not a natural fit for the Donald Trump–era Republican Party. The former Tennessee governor checks certain GOP boxes: He favors low taxes and opposes abortion rights; his background is in business, including an executive role in his family’s highly successful truck-stop chain. But during his time in office, Haslam also got in trouble with his base for vetoing a bill that would have declared the Bible Tennessee’s official state book. He successfully championed Tennessee Promise, the kind of free-college program you’d normally expect to hear about in a Bernie Sanders stump speech. And his temperament is a poor fit for Trump-style culture wars. When Haslam was elected during the 2010 Tea Party wave, a local commentator complained that “these other states have superhero action figures for their new governor, and we are stuck with Mr. Rogers.”
Historically, Tennessee has favored moderate candidates for statewide office. For many years, Democrats and Republicans rotated through the governor’s mansion, and since the mid-1990s, senators have tended to be centrist, business-minded Republicans. But like other red states, Tennessee seems to be swinging to the right: Trump won in 2020 by 23 percentage points, and the Republican margin of victory has consistently widened in every presidential election since 1996, the last time the state went to a Democrat. This hard-right trend leaves politicians like Haslam in an uncertain position. Although he declined to run for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2020 and says he hasn’t figured out whether he’s going to run for office again, it’s also not clear that he could win in today’s political environment.