NASHVILLE — Lamar Alexander had the lead in early returns Thursday to determine if the Republican is nominated to a third term in the U.S. Senate.
Alexander faces challenges from tea party-styled state Rep. Joe Carr of Murfreesboro and Memphis radio station owner George Flinn. With 0.3 percent of precincts reporting, Alexander had 30,706 votes, or 50 percent, compared with 25,656, or 42 percent, for Carr.
In other races in the Republican primary, voters in the 4th Congressional District were deciding whether they want to stick with U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais despite a series of personal scandals that have dogged him since he was first elected in 2010.
Three Democratic members of the state Supreme Court who have been targeted by conservatives also will find out whether they will remain for another eight-year term.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam defeated his token opposition to win the Republican nomination to a second term.
Carr and Flinn have tried to cast the former two-term governor Alexander 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.
In the Memphis suburb of Bartlett, Republican Kathy Leake, a nurse, said that while she would not shy away from voting for a qualified tea party candidate, she chose Alexander.
"I really don't have anything against him," she said. "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."
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."
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. 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."