Embattled Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) was clinging to a razor-thin, 33-vote margin of victory early Friday morning, capping off an unlikely comeback for the scandal-ridden congressman.
According to The Associated Press, DesJarlais’s bitter challenge from GOP state Sen. Jim Tracy was too close to call.
With all precincts reporting, DesJarlais led Tracy by just 33 votes out of more than 77,000 cast. While both top contenders pulled in 45 percent of the vote each, five other GOP candidates split the remaining 10 percent.
GOP sources say provisional ballots are still likely outstanding, which could change the close margin. But if DesJarlais’s victory holds, it will be one of most unexpected victories of the cycle.
"There are ballots left to be counted in the Fourth District Republican primary. We eagerly await the final outcome once the counting is completed and verified," the Tracy campaign said in a statement.
"We're glad that the voters chose to judge the congressman on his record in Washington, rather than the disgusting, disingenuous smear tactics propagated by Sen. Tracy's campaign," Robert Jameson, a DesJarlais spokesman, told The Tennessean.
In November 2012, revelations came to light that the physician had pushed his ex-wife to have two abortions and carried on multiple affairs with patients, one of whom he urged to terminate a pregnancy.
In the solidly Republican district, DesJarlais won reelection nonetheless, but potential GOP opponents smelled blood. Tracy jumped in the race in January 2013, not-so-subtly pushing ethics and trust in the socially conservative district. DesJarlais said the episode years ago was in the past and had since asked for forgiveness, and even in the campaign’s closing days, Tennessee GOP strategists in the state feared DesJarlais could actually pull off the win.
DesJarlais argued the mistakes from years ago were behind him, and he had been crossing the district, reaching out to faith communities and asking for forgiveness.
The race was further turned on its head when DesJarlais announced last month he had been diagnosed with neck cancer. He began undergoing treatments immediately, and his time was limited on the campaign trail.
After the incumbent’s diagnosis though, some Tracy supporters worried that the challenger’s negative attacks could backfire. Tracy’s final ads reminded voters that DesJarlais was fined by the state medical board for relationships with patients and says he “no longer has credibility. ”On the campaign trail, surrogates for Tracy made not-so-veiled references to “values,” “morals,” “trust” and “integrity.”
Even with that scandal, DesJarlais still had a reliable base in some of the district’s more rural counties, many of whom may have been skeptical of Tracy’s more urban Murfreesboro base. The incumbent worked to paint the state senator as insufficiently conservative in mailings and on TV.
Tracy had the cash advantage and what seemed like the more sophisticated ground game, too. The challenger raised $1.4 million to DesJarlais’s $447,000 and spent nearly triple that of the incumbent.
According to The Tennessean, the Tracy campaign had appeared confident earlier in the evening about their win and the challenger had even declared victory.
"When you take on an incumbent, it's a tremendous challenge," he told supporters. "It took all of you to get this done."
The tight margin of the race will likely be scrutinized by both sides in the coming days, and Tennessee recount statues are far from clear. A provision specifies that recounts can be ordered in the event of a tie, an “indication of fraud if the number of votes affected would be sufficient to change the result of the election,” malfunction of a voting machine which could change the outcome,” or the very broad statement that “ any other instance the court or body with jurisdiction of a contested election finds that a recount is warranted.”
— This post was updated at 1:28 a.m.