Republican Lamar Alexander became the latest U.S. senator to fend off a tea party challenge in a primary race Thursday, defeating a state senator who had used a familiar tactic in trying to cast him as an out of touch insider.
Meanwhile, scandal-plagued U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ bid to hang onto his seat was too close to call. Unofficial returns with all precincts reporting showed him with a lead of only 33 votes over state Sen. Jim Tracy, who had raised far more money. A recount was possible.
Alexander’s win dealt another blow to national tea party momentum after the stunning primary win over Republican Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia in June.
In Tennessee, state Rep. Joe Carr had high-profile endorsements from tea party-allied figures, but he could not overcome Alexander’s fundraising advantage and 40 years in Tennessee politics. He had about 38 percent of the vote with 24 percent of precincts reporting, compared with about 52 percent for Alexander.
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In heavily Republican Tennessee, Alexander is strongly favored to win re-election in November. He maintained a moderate tone in his victory speech, touting his ability to craft compromises.
“If we want to change Obamacare, we’re going to have to pass something. If we want to fix the debt, we’re going to have to pass something,” Alexander said. “And to do that we’re going to have to work with other people to get it done.”
So far this year, the argument that sitting senators have lost their connection with voters hasn’t been a winner. Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas have all held off tea party-backed challenges.
Republican Kathy Leake, a 65-year old nurse in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett, said she would not shy away from voting for a qualified tea party candidate but had nothing against Alexander.
“I didn’t see any of the others that had anything else to offer any better than he was … I’m just sticking with him,” she said.
Alexander sought to avoid any chance Carr or Flinn could cast him as an insider by locking down key endorsements and spending the final few weeks of the campaign on a 35-stop bus tour around the state stressing his ability to get results in a divided Senate.
The senator’s stance resonated with voter Larry Harrison, a clinical services director in Nashville who considers himself an independent.
“Carr goes way too conservative for me,” said Harrison, who cited Alexander’s experience and temperament in supporting the incumbent.
“I think he’s got a more moderate view, and I’m a more moderate person myself,” he said.
Alexander, 74, has served two terms as the state’s governor and two terms in the Senate.
Also on the Tennessee ballot Thursday is embattled Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a physician from the small south Tennessee town of Jasper who won re-election in 2012 despite revelations that he once urged a patient he was dating to seek an abortion.
After the election, court officials released transcripts of divorce proceedings that included DesJarlais admitting under oath that he had eight affairs, encouraged a lover to get an abortion and used a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument.
Last year, DesJarlais was reprimanded and fined by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May for having sex with patients. But the congressman has since doubled down on his tea party credentials and has dismissed the details about his personal life as “old news.”
In the state’s majority black 9th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, a white and Jewish Memphis native, defeated attorney Ricky Wilkins. Wilkins, who is African-American, had sought to highlight ethnic and racial differences between Cohen and his constituents in the district, which Cohen has represented since 2006.