Democratic poll shows Rep. DesJarlais now faces tough challenge

The Democrat challenging GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais says the contest has become a "dead heat" following news that the Tennessee physician had an affair with a patient and urged her to get an abortion.

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DesJarlais has been a heavy favorite to win a second term against Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart. But poll numbers released by Stewart's campaign Wednesday indicate the Democrat has pulled to within 5 points in the wake of the scandal — a statistical tie based on the 4.9 percentage point margin of error.

Pollster Andrew Myers, who heads Myers Research, a Virginia-based Democratic polling firm, said the scandal caused "a tectonic shift" in the direction of the contest.

"The plates have moved, and this has become an extremely competitive race," Myers said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. "In fact, it's a dead heat today."

The survey of 400 likely voters conducted Sunday and Monday found that Tennessee's Fourth District leans heavily Republican, with GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney leading President Obama by 18 points, 56 to 38 percent. Republicans lead Democrats by 13 points, 52 to 39 percent, in a generic congressional contest.

But DesJarlais, the poll found, leads Stewart by just 49 percent to 44 percent – an 11-point shift since June, when Myers Research conducted its first poll on the race.

"It is clear, to be blunt, that the congressman is in real trouble," Myers said.

Stewart on Wednesday issued a statement attacking DesJarlais as "an embarrassment to elected officials, to the state of Tennessee, and to the medical profession.

"He’s violated his oath of marriage, the oath he took as a doctor and the trust of the voters,” Stewart said in a statement.

Still, Stewart's campaign declined to release the full poll results, issuing only a one-page polling memo – a distinction that leaves the Democrat open to accusations that he cherry-picked those figures that play to his advantage.

The DesJarlais campaign declined to comment Wednesday.

DesJarlais, a conservative running on an anti-abortion platform, churned headlines last week after the Huffington Post reported that he'd urged his mistress, a former patient, to terminate a pregnancy.

DesJarlais has not denied the 12-year-old affair, but he claims the woman was never actually pregnant, so the abortion was never necessary. He's also characterized the episode as old news that's irrelevant to his performance on Capitol Hill.

Still, the saga has been a black eye for the Republicans, and Romney was quick to distance himself by removing a link to a DesJarlais endorsement from his campaign website. Adding to DesJarlais's troubles, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a prominent watchdog group, has asked the Tennessee Medical Examiner’s Board to investigate the physician for having sex with a patient.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had all but written off the district before the story broke, providing no financial backing to Stewart. But Kevin Teets, Stewart's campaign manager, said this week that the DCCC is watching polls carefully to see if the district now represents a pickup opportunity.

DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said Wednesday that, facing questions of "values and morals," DesJarlais "has put himself in serious jeopardy.” But Ferguson declined to say whether the DCCC will throw any new money behind Stewart based on the Myers poll.

— Posted at 1:31 p.m. and last updated at 3:12 p.m.