The former longtime mayor of Memphis, who unabashedly campaigned for voters to send him to Congress because he is black, was overwhelmingly defeated by the white incumbent in Thursday’s Democratic primary.
And in the country’s most expensive U.S. House race, farmer and gospel performer Steve Fincher won the GOP primary.
Willie Herenton, Memphis’ first black elected mayor, pushed the race angle throughout his campaign for the 9th District, saying he’s more representative of majority-black Memphis than U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who is white and Jewish. Herenton had said he wanted to diversify Tennessee’s all-white, 11-member congressional delegation.
But with 78 percent of precincts reporting, Cohen had 54,897 votes, or 79 percent, to Herenton’s 14,254 or 21 percent.
Cohen said his victory sends a message that “Memphis is a city on the move and not a city of the past.”
Herenton urged his supporters to back Cohen. Before Thursday, the 70-year-old Herenton had never lost a political race and served 4½ terms as mayor before retiring under the cloud of a federal corruption investigation, which now appears to be over. Cohen, a two-term congressman, countered Herenton’s tactics 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.
“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.
Democrats have held the seat for more than three decades and Cohen will be the heavy favorite to win in November.
In the 8th District, the three GOP candidates waged the most expensive House race in the country, spending more than $5 million. Memphis radiologist and broadcaster George Flinn poured nearly $3 million of his own money into his bid, while physician Ron Kirkland benefited from the heavy support of his brother Robert, the co-founder of national home decor retailer Kirkland’s Inc.
Fincher, the GOP establishment choice and a farmer, was criticized by his rivals for collecting $3.2 million farm subsidies. Kirkland’s campaign cited U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics showing that 10 percent of the wealthiest farmers receive nearly three-quarters of all farm subsidies.
Fincher deflected the criticism by arguing that he had nothing to do with the way the current system for supporting farmers was set up, and that he supports unspecified reform of the complicated program.
With 68 percent of precincts reporting, Fincher had 30,228 votes, or 50 percent of the vote, to Kirkland’s 14,873, or 25 percent, and Flinn had 13,431 votes, or 22 percent.
Fincher faces Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron in fall in the northwest Tennessee district. Incumbent Democratic Rep. John Tanner is retiring, and Republicans think the seat is one they could pick up in November.
The contentious GOP primary in the 6th District east of Nashville to succeed retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, state Sen. Diane Black beat out fellow senator Jim Tracy and party activist and businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik.
In southeast Tennessee’s 3rd District, Chattanooga attorney Chuck Fleishmann, who was endorsed by former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, has beaten state GOP chairwoman Robin Smith.
Three congressional incumbents — Republicans Jimmy Duncan and Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Lincoln Davis faced no primary opposition.
Associated Press writers Lucas L. Johnson II in Nashville and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.