NASHVILLE —Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais defied expectations of a blowout defeat in his bid for a another term, instead emerging from the Republican primary with a razor-thin margin that left the race too close to call.
With all precincts reporting, DesJarlais and challenger Jim Tracy were separated by a 33-vote margin, illustrating the willingness of the incumbent’s tea party base to overlook DesJarlais’ personal problems that included once urging a mistress to seek an abortion.
“Despite my opponent spending more than a million dollars on desperate, negative attacks, Tennesseans chose to judge me on my record in Washington,” said DesJarlais in a statement at midnight on Thursday. “I want to thank my constituents for voting to elect me to another term in Congress. I look forward to continuing my independent, conservative approach to stopping President Obama’s radical agenda.”
The final result of Thursday’s election may drag out until the end the month as election officials consider provisional ballots and potential challenges.
State election officials say they will move to speed up the finalization of results from Thursday’s primaries in the 4th Congressional District, but it may be weeks before the outcome becomes clear in the race between DesJarlais and Tracy.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett and coordinator of elections Mark Goins told reporters in a conference call after midnight on Friday morning that they have begun to contact election commissions in the 16-county districts to move up meetings to certify the results of the race, which DesJarlais appears to have won by 33 votes based on unofficial returns.
The last commission, in Lincoln County, currently is scheduled to meet Aug. 25. Candidates have five days after final results are filed to ask for a recount.
In both of DesJarlais’ previous elections, he tried to cast doubt on reports of violent behavior toward his ex-wife and about multiple extramarital affairs before his divorce was finalized.
But court transcripts released the week after the November 2012 election revealed that he admitted under oath that he had eight affairs, encouraged a lover to get an abortion and used a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument.
And last year, DesJarlais, a physician, was fined and reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May for having sex with patients before he was elected.
DesJarlais dismissed those details as “old news,” noting that he now is happily re-married while stressing familiar tea party attacks on President Barack Obama over health care and the assault on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Tracy initially declared victory Thursday night, but late returns from Grundy County appear to have tipped the tight race in favor of DesJarlais. Early Friday morning, the Tracy campaign issued a statement acknowledging the shift but holding out hope that he could still win.
“There are ballots left to be counted in the Fourth District Republican primary,” the campaign said. “We eagerly await the final outcome once the counting is completed and verified.”
Tracy, a state senator and former college basketball referee, stressed themes of integrity in his campaign against DesJarlais. That message resonated with some voters, but Tracy was unable to persuade enough voters in the more rural counties around DesJarlais’ home in the southeastern part of the state, many of which voted overwhelmingly for the incumbent.
—Eric Schelzig of the Associated Press and Chas Sisk of The Tennessean contributed to this story