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Haslam is projected easy winner in Tennessee GOP primary for governor

By Paul Steinhauser and Steve Brusk, CNN
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam claims victory in Tennessee's GOP primary for governor on Thursday night.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam claims victory in Tennessee's GOP primary for governor on Thursday night.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Cohen is projected winner of GOP 9th district primary
  • Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has 48 percent of the vote in the GOP tgovernor's primary
  • The GOP winner will face Democrat Mike McWherter
  • The GOP race grabbed national attention last month
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(CNN) -- Bill Haslam, the mayor of Knoxville and considered a moderate Republican, easily won the Tennessee GOP primary for governor Thursday, the Associated Press projected.

With 76 percent of the state's precincts in, AP reported Haslam had 48.2 percent of the vote as he defeated Congressman Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Halsam, who helped fund some of his own campaign, will now face Mike McWherter, a Democratic businessman and son of a former governor. The race is to succeed Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, who is prevented by term limits from running for a third term. Political handicappers think Republicans have a good shot at winning back the governor's office.

Republican Governors Association spokesman Tim Murtaugh in a statement: "Bill Haslam emerges as a strong candidate headed toward November, having beaten a pair of qualified office holders in a spirited primary. As Tennessee faces great economic challenges, Bill Haslam will be a strong voice for job creation, fiscal restraint and individual freedom.

"A successful mayor and businessman, he has the leadership experience necessary to create jobs and grow the economy. We look forward to seeing him elected the next governor of Tennessee."

Democratic Governors Association executive director Nathan Daschle said, "Mike McWherter has spent his career growing jobs and strengthening the economy. The only thing Bill Haslam has increased in his career is Knoxville's taxes and unemployment rate."

"Voters are looking for someone with the know-how to move the state in the right direction, and that candidate is Mike McWherter," Daschle added.

The race grabbed national attention last month because of controversial comments by two of the challengers.

Wamp appeared to suggest that Tennessee should consider secession in light of mandates forced on the states by the Obama administration's health care bill. The eight-term congressman later stepped back from those comments.

Ramsey also drew attention to himself last month after he was seen in a YouTube video questioning whether Islam is a religion. He was expressing his opposition to the expansion of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which has become a hot-button issue in the city about 35 miles southeast of Nashville.

Ramsey, who has been endorsed by 20 Tea Party organizations, said he is a supporter of religious freedoms, but such protections may not extend to bringing "Shariah [Islamic] law into the state of Tennessee ... into the United States."

"Now, you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it," he continued. "But certainly we do protect our religions, but at the same time, this is something we are going to have to face."

Following criticism, Ramsey defended his comments, saying, "My concern is that far too much of Islam has come to resemble a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion."

In a high-profile Congressional primary, AP projected two-term Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen overwhelmingly defeated former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. The campaign in the 9th District, which covers Memphis and has a large African-American population, was dominated by race.

With 78 percent of precincts in, AP says Cohen had 79.4 percent of the vote to Herenton's 20.6 percent.

Herenton has been urging voters to elect him as the only African-American member of the state's congressional delegation, saying, "It is as if only white people live in the great state of Tennessee. No African-Americans. I believe that it is very clear to the majority of the citizens of this community that we lack representation."

Cohen, who served as a state lawmaker in the area before being elected to Congress, has campaigned on what he's done for education and health care in the area. "I represent everybody and I work hard for people to get them opportunities. And I just think that race should not be an issue in 2010," he said.

President Barack Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus backed Cohen.

AP projected Stephen Fincher the winner in the 8th District Republican primary. Finch has 50 percent of the vote over Ron Kirkland at 24.6 percent and George Flinn at 22.2 percent. The race, for Rep. John Tanner's seat, is noteworthy because the Center for Responsible Politics has called it the most expensive House primary in the country,

Finch will face Roy Herron, the projected winner of the Democratic primary, in November AP projects him the winner in the Democratic 8th District Primary.

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