NASHVILLE — A surprise poll released Monday by JMC Analytics and Polling found that Middle Tennessee businessman and rancher Bill Lee has taken the lead among Republicans vying to be the Volunteer State’s next governor.

The poll, which surveyed 500 likely voters via telephone, found that Lee leads his fellow Republicans by six points, including former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and Congresswoman Diane Black.

JMC’s poll found that Lee was the favorite of 26 percent of those polled, trailed by Boyd at 20 percent and Black at 19 percent. House Speaker Beth Harwell was fourth, at 16 percent.

While Lee is a political newcomer, there have been signs in recent weeks that his campaign has the momentum as the Aug. 2 primary draws near. Boyd and Black, long presumed to be the frontrunners in the race to succeed Bill Haslam, have responded by increasing their political attack ads against Lee.

Lee is chairman of Lee Company, based in Franklin. 

In addition to leading the Republican field by six points, Lee had a slim lead among undecided voters. He also fared best in terms of likability, with 52 percent responding favorably and only 17 percent responding negatively. By contrast, only 30 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Black and 39 percent had a favorable opinion of Boyd.

According to JMC, Lee led in Middle Tennessee, had a slight lead in East Tennessee and trailed slightly in West Tennessee. The pollsters said that 45 percent of respondents were from East Tennessee, 37 percent were from Middle Tennessee and 18 percent were from West Tennessee. Of those participating in the poll, 48 percent were over the age of 65. Only seven percent were in the 18-34 age demographic.

JMC polling has previously been given a C-plus rating by FiveThirtyEight, a website that tracks poll analysis.

The Lee campaign seized on the poll as an example that the Franklin businessman has the momentum as the election date arrives.

“We feel great about the state of our campaign right now,” Lee said. “We are seeing a tremendous amount of momentum. We started off this race with a 95 county tour in 95 days. We are finishing this campaign with 100 town halls all across the state. With every packed house our momentum grows because I believe Tennesseans want a conservative leader and now more than ever they want an outsider.”

Other candidates slammed the poll.

“No one should fall for a deeply-flawed poll cooked up at the 11th hour by some unknown pollster,” said Chip Saltsman, CEO of Boyd’s campaign. “The sample is wrong and the methodology is way off.”

Saltsman called the poll a “publicity stunt by the Lee campaign to try and artificially create some momentum.”

Likewise, Black spokesman Chris Hartline said the congresswoman wasn’t concerned about the poll.

“While moderates Randy Boyd and Bill Lee argue about a bogus poll from a firm no one has heard of, conservative Diane Black and her team are busy talking to voters about her record of working with President Trump, her vision and her endorsements from the NRA, Right to Life and American Conservative Union,” she said.

Attack ads heat up

As the Lee campaign appears to gather steam, Boyd and Black have turned their attention from each other to Lee amid an increasingly flurry of negative ads.

In a television ad released earlier this month, Boyd pointed out that Lee “donated to disgraced liberal Democrat Mayor Megan Barry, who supported sanctuary cities. And Bill Lee didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016.” 

Campaign finance records show that Lee did donate $500 to Barry’s campaign for mayor in 2015, and that he also donated to former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen and former Nashville mayor Karl Dean, for a total of $1,750. However, he has also donated thousands of dollars more to Republican candidates at both the state and federal level.

Meanwhile, records show that Boyd likewise donated to a Democrat — contributing $250 to Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero in 2014.

Among those who have endorsed Lee is former Congressman Zach Camp of Chattanooga. Wamp’s son, Weston Wamp, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in the 2nd District — which includes Scott County — has actively supported Lee on Twitter.

Both Boyd and Black have launched websites dedicated to criticizing Lee’s record.

On the opposite side of the ballot, Karl Dean and Craig Fitzhugh are squaring off for the Democratic nomination to oppose whichever candidate is left standing in the bruising Republican primary.

Dean is the former mayor of Nashville, while Fitzhugh is the current House Minority Leader in Tennessee.

At a televised debate in Knoxville on Sunday, the two Democrats appeared much more harmonious than their Republican counterparts, agreeing on most issues presented to them at the Pellissippi State Community College forum.

A Republican debate was to have followed the Democratic debate, but was canceled after several leading candidates withdrew from the event. Boyd was the first to cancel, followed by Black and Harwell.

Lee showed up anyway, and held a town hall event in an auditorium on the community college’s campus.