NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three incumbent Tennessee Supreme Court justices won re-election to new terms Thursday, fighting off an effort by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and conservative forces to oust them.
Tennesseans voted to retain Chief Justice Gary Wade, along with Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee. All three had been appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and had become targets of Ramsey's efforts to put the state's high court under Republican control.
Because the Court appoints the state's top lawyer, Ramsey viewed it as a chance to get a Republican attorney general.
Vote counts from the Tennessee Secretary of State's Office showed the three justices carried the state with more than 55 percent of the vote.
"We took our case to the voters. We asked them to consider false statements, misstatements, distortions and to make their own judgments about us - and I think they've spoken loud," Clark said.
Justice Lee expressed similar sentiments.
"Everywhere I went, people - when I would explain what the issues were - they were very receptive and they said, 'Yeah, that's what we want. We want fair and impartial courts,'" she said.
Wade praised member of the legal community who viewed the ouster effort as a "full-scale challenge to the constitutional principle of balance of powers."
"This is far bigger than us individually," he said. "This is Reilly a victory for the legal profession."
The three incumbents were the targets of an expensive and unprecedented campaign, led by Ramsey, to try to convince Tennesseans to vote "replace" instead of "retain."
The Blountville Republican put $425,000 from his own political action committee into the ouster effort. He was joined by the out-of-state Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent at least $200,000. The Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity -- a group funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers -- also joined the campaign.
To fend off the attacks, the justices raised more than $1 million combined, mostly from members of the legal community who came to their defense.
Rather than admitting defeat, Ramsey insisted in a statement Thursday night that Tennesseans won because they "gained a fuller appreciation of the role of the judiciary in the state of Tennessee."
"For the first time in decades, we had a real election for the Supreme Court," Ramsey said. "Our Supreme Court justices traveled the state of Tennessee this summer meeting Tennesseans and learning things about our state that you can’t find in any law book.
"Because of that, more Tennesseans than ever know the names of our Supreme Court justices and are aware they have a role in deciding who sits on the high court."
The head of the main opposition group, the Tennessee Forum, said the casting of 300,000 votes to replace the justices was "a win for the electoral process in Tennessee."
"With a system that doesn't allow for an opposing candidate, there was nothing for like-minded conservatives to lose today," Susan Kaestner said in a statement.
"We hope the justices take this unprecedented replace vote as a wake-up call and choose a new attorney general who more closely reflects the values of Tennesseans moving forward."