NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Republican Bill Haslam on Tuesday scored a landslide victory in the Tennessee governor's race, but was quick to warn supporters of about the "sobering challenges" facing the state when he takes office on Jan. 15.
Haslam, who defeated Democrat Mike McWherter, said he will go to Nashville on Wednesday to begin the transition and to prepare for ways to address deep budget cuts, boost the state's employment rate and improve the education system.
"In the excitement of tonight, let's not forget that we face some really sobering challenges," Haslam said in a 7-minute speech to supporters at a Knoxville hotel. "We have a budget that really will have $1.5 billion less in revenue to work with next year than we have this year.
"And in education, none of us are satisfied with being closer to the bottom than we are to the top."
Tara Davis and two friends who made the hour drive from Hamblen County to the victory party in Knoxville were undeterred by the gloomy forecast. Davis, a social worker, said the night had been "really awesome" and showed how Tennessee had gotten behind Bill Haslam.
"I am excited to see where he is going to go," said Davis, 26. "He has a really good grasp on what we need to do economically."
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Haslam had 1 million votes, or 65 percent, to McWherter's 517,817, or 33 percent. McWherter in his concession speech in Jackson wished Haslam success as governor, "because if he does well, the state will progress."
Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Bredesen, who couldn't run again because of term limits, congratulated Haslam on his victory.
"Haslam will bring a reasoned, commonsense approach to governing our state, and I know he will continue to build on the progress we've made in recent years," Bredesen said in a statement.
McWherter, the son of former Gov. Ned McWherter making his first run for political office, failed to capitalize on his famous last name. He lost all but a handful of the state's 95 counties and was outspent by a 5-to-1 margin by Haslam over the course of the campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Haslam was president of the family-owned Pilot chain of truck stops, one of the country's largest privately owned companies, until he was elected mayor of Knoxville in 2003.
Clarksville hotel worker Charlsie Lankford, 45, said she voted for Haslam "mainly because he knows how to run a business."McWherter's charges that Haslam was a "billionaire oil man" failed to stick, as did a late spurt of television ads depicting Haslam as reckless on gun laws because he said he would sign potential legislation to do away with requirements to obtain a state-issued permit to carry handguns in public.
Roy Cheaves, a retired welder who cast his ballot at the Haletown Volunteer Fire Department in rural Marion County, said he voted for Haslam despite once going fishing with McWherter's father. He said improving the state's education system was among his top priorities.
"I think education is something that needs more accountability," said Cheaves, 84, "The kids are not learning. That's the main thing. "
Both candidates said they'd work to build on Bredesen's accomplishments.
"It was really a tough choice for me," said Craig Cowles, 70, who works in real estate in Memphis and usually votes Republican. "I do think the current administration has done a really good job ... I just voted for Mr. Haslam, I guess partly because of all the ads and so many signs."