By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump, on Thursday won Tennessee's Republican U.S. Senate primary election to replace retiring Senator Lamar Alexander, according to media projections.
Hagerty, 60, who was appointed to the diplomatic post by Trump and has modeled his campaign after the Republican president's 2016 run for the White House, easily outpaced 14 other candidates seeking the Republican nomination.
Partial results had Hagerty with 50.5% of the vote. His closest challenger, orthopedic surgeon Manny Sethi, was trailing in second place with 40.1%.
The two candidates engaged in a bitter campaign, with each claiming to be more conservative than the other in the heavily Republican state that Trump easily won nearly four years ago.
The winner of the Republican primary will be well positioned on Nov. 3 to replace Alexander, the 80-year-old former U.S. secretary of education, who is among a dwindling number of moderate Republicans in Congress.
For decades, Tennessee had a track record of electing moderate Republicans, including Alexander and former Senator Howard Baker.
The three nonpartisan U.S. elections-ratings services view the seat as solidly Republican and not in play as Democrats seek a majority in the Senate. The state was also holding a series of House of Representatives primaries that are unlikely to influence control of that chamber.
Hagerty became ambassador to Japan in 2017, leaving the post in 2019 to run for Alexander's seat.
Strong campaign fundraising, Trump's endorsement and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's backing appeared to pay off for Hagerty, according to incomplete results.
But 42-year-old Sethi waged an unexpectedly spirited campaign and scored high-profile endorsements from conservative Republican Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
Meanwhile, the Democratic primary election delivered an upset, as Marquita Bradshaw, a Black woman and community activist, was declared the winner by the Associated Press.
She beat James Mackler, a lawyer and Army veteran, who was seen as the favored candidate. With the count not complete, Mackler was third in a field of five.
In recent elections, Democrats have found success in fielding moderate congressional candidates with military backgrounds.
But some cracks have formed in that formula this election year amid a progressive surge in the Democratic party and following social unrest in response to excessive use of force by police against Black Americans.
Bradshaw, however, is expected to have an uphill battle in November against Hagerty.
Throughout the primary race, Hagerty touted his loyalty to Trump with campaign promises focused on stopping illegal immigration, building a southern border wall and confirming "constitutionalist" judges.
As Sethi's campaign revved up, Hagerty went on the attack, branding the Indian-American as too liberal for Tennessee, labeling him "Massachusetts Manny" for his years as a medical student and hospital intern in that state.
Sethi, who was trying to follow in the footsteps of Tennessee surgeon and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, introduced himself on his campaign website as a Christian and proclaiming, "I'm pro-life and I'm pro-gun."
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)