NASHVILLE — Republican voters going to the polls Thursday will determine whether to nominate Lamar Alexander, a 40-year veteran of Tennessee politics, to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
They will also decide if they want to stick with embattled Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais despite a series of personal scandals that have dogged him since he was first elected in 2010, and whether to retain or replace any of three Democratic state Supreme Court justices up for another eight-year term.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam faces no serious opposition in his bid to win the Republican nomination to a second term.
Election officials say early voting ran ahead of the previous record set in 2010, when close to half of the primary ballots were cast beforehand.
Alexander faces tea party-styled challenges from state Rep. Joe Carr and Memphis radio station owner George Flinn, who have tried to cast the former two-term governor as out of touch with Tennessee's current political landscape.
But some voting in the state's open primaries cast their vote for Alexander because they felt his opponents were too far to the right.
"Carr goes way too conservative for me," said voter Larry Harrison, a clinical services director in Nashville, who considers himself an independent. Harrison 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.
At a campaign event in Lawrenceburg earlier this week, Alexander urged voters to ignore last-minute attacks on issues including gun rights, immigration and the federal health care law. But Alexander said he doesn't begrudge fellow Republicans for challenging him for the nomination.
"You know, if I wanted to stay home and make speeches, I'd join the debating club," he said. "I like having an open primary, a competitive primary that gives me a chance to validate my opinions and the way I'm doing my job."
"If I'm lucky enough to win it, then I can look back and say I've won a primary that was big in one of the most conservative states, and that means when I go to Washington, my voice will be stronger."
A late influx of campaign cash on both sides of the judicial retention vote has drawn heavy attention to what have traditionally been sleepy down-ballot races.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has spearheaded the ouster effort and given $425,000 toward defeating the three justices appointed by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.
If even one of the justices loses, their replacement would likely be a Republican, shifting control of the five-member court to the GOP. That change would be significant because the high court will name the next attorney general on Aug. 31.
The Republican primary in the 4th Congressional District pits state Sen. Jim Tracy against DesJarlais, a physician who is seeking a third term despite revelations that he once urged a mistress to get an abortion, used a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument and was fined by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May for having sex with patients.
In Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville and part of DesJarlais' district, municipal worker Rickey Brindley said he was turning against DesJarlais despite previously backing him.
The scandals "shocked me and I thought, 'For sure, he's never going to get my vote again,'" said Brindley.
Campaign signs for Tracy in Murfreesboro far outnumbered those for DesJarlais, whose fundraising lagged behind.
Other contested congressional races include the latest primary challenge to Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, a white and Jewish Memphis native, in the state's majority black 9th District. In the 3rd District in East Tennessee, incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann again faces Weston Wamp, the son of former Rep. Zach Wamp.
Dozens of state House and Senate nominations are being contested, including a strong challenge to controversial state Sen. Stacey Campfield, who has drawn national attention for comparing the federal health care law to the forced transportation of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
In upper northeast Tennessee, several arch-conservative state House members are facing being challenges from more moderate candidates.
"We are in a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," state Rep. Tony Shipley told the Kingsport Times-News. "It is the moderates versus the conservatives and there is no doubt about it."