MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Democratic voters in Memphis rejected their former mayor’s race-focused campaign for Congress on Thursday, delivering a landslide to incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen.
Willie Herenton had urged the majority black 9th District to elect him because he is African-American and could diversify Tennessee’s all-white, 11-member congressional delegation.
Cohen, who is white and Jewish, got 63,343 votes, or 79 percent, to Willie Herenton’s 17,128, or 21 percent according to final but unofficial results.
In other closely watched Republican congressional campaigns, a former state GOP chairwoman narrowly lost, a state senator narrowly won and a gospel singer finished far ahead in the nation’s most expensive U.S. House race.
Cohen said his victory sends a message that “Memphis is a city on the move and not a city of the past.”
Herenton, the city’s first black mayor, had never before lost a campaign. He urged his supporters to back Cohen and at age 70 said he has no immediate plans to run for another office.
“I’m the kind of guy that was always the winner. For whatever reason, it was not part of God’s master plan,” Herenton said.
Herenton’s campaign message ranged from making the case that “diverse people ought to have representation” to chiding voters to “come off that Cohen plantation and get on the Herenton freedom train.”
Cohen, a two-term congressman and former state senator, countered that with endorsements from President Barack Obama and Harold Ford Sr., the first black elected to the seat and senior member of a powerful political family.
Cohen, 61, also built support in the black community by supporting civil rights legislation and bringing much-needed federal funding to Memphis schools and hospitals.
Brenda Garner, a 67-year-old retired health case professional, said she voted for Cohen because he has been more active in the community and has shown genuine concern for voters in his district.
“He visited everywhere to just let us know, ‘I’m not taking you for granted,’” Garner said.
After Thursday night’s victory, Cohen said he was asked by the Democratic Caucus to help other Democrats around the country hold onto or win seats in November.
In southeast Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District, Chattanooga attorney Chuck Fleischmann prevailed over former state Republican Party leader Robin Smith. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Fleischmann had 26,860 votes, or 30 percent, to Smith’s 25,451, or 28 percent. The seat was open because incumbent Zach Wamp ran for governor.
Fleischmann won the endorsement of former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He said Huckabee called to congratulate him Thursday night.
Smith, whose term as GOP leader saw the party take control of the Legislature but also be criticized for 2008 literature that implied then-candidate Obama was a Muslim, was endorsed by the Club for Growth.
“The people are tired of the politics as usual,” Fleischmann said. “They wanted someone who was a true political outsider.”
After calling Fleischmann to concede, Smith thanked her supporters and told them to “stay involved — pray, pray.”
Fleischmann faces Democrat John Wolfe in November.
In the 6th District east of Nashville, Sen. Diane Black won by just over 360 votes in a race dominated by issues of illegal immigration and diversity.
With all precincts reporting, Black had 24,604 votes, or 31 percent of the vote. Party activist and businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik garnered 24,242 votes, or 30 percent, while state Sen. Tracy had 23,875 votes, or 29.7 percent.
Tracy and Black boasted about their plans to stamp out illegal immigration, while Zelenik raised eyebrows when she said in June that plans to build a mosque in a Nashville suburb posed a threat to Tennessee’s moral and political foundation.
In the Democratic primary, Iraq war veteran and lawyer Brett Carter edged Henry Barry and another veteran, Ben Leming. Carter had 9,052 votes or 30 percent. Barry had 8,820 votes or 29 percent while Leming had 8,705 votes, also 29 percent.
Incumbent Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon is retiring, and Republicans are hoping to take the seat in the fall.
In northwest Tennessee’s 8th District, Crockett County farmer and gospel performer Steve Fincher won the GOP primary, where campaign spending hit $5.2 million.
With all precincts reporting, Fincher had 35,016 votes, or 49 percent of the vote. Jackson physician Ron Kirkland came in second with 17,638 votes, or 24 percent, while Memphis radiologist and broadcaster George Flinn had 17,309 votes, also 24 percent.
Fincher’s rivals criticized him for collecting $3.2 million in farm subsidies. Flinn was targeted for living outside the district, while Kirkland was attacked for personal and political action committee donations to Democrats.
Fincher faces Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron in the fall. Incumbent Democratic Rep. John Tanner is retiring, and Republicans think the seat is one they could pick up in November.
Republican Rep. Phil Roe was declared the winner over opponent Michael Sabri in the 1st District in northeast Tennessee and faces no opposition in November.
Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper defeated Eric Pearson in the 5th District encompassing Nashville. He will be challenged by Republican David Hall, a businessman who defeated 10 other candidates, including CeCe Heil, who had been endorsed by Sarah Palin.
Three congressional incumbents — Republicans Jimmy Duncan in the 2nd and Marsha Blackburn in the 7th and Democrat Lincoln Davis in the 4th — had no primary opposition.