The hotly contested 10th Senate District Republican primary teetered on the edge of an electoral cliff late Thursday night, with Republican Todd Gardenhire holding a scant 15-vote lead over rival Greg Vital, according to unofficial returns.
But Gardenhire was unwilling to claim victory and Vital unwilling to concede defeat, saying uncounted provisional ballots and overseas military ballots could change the outcome.
Gardenhire called the results "exciting. I don't think anyone will get any sleep tonight," he said.
Vital's campaign said he remains optimistic.
"Tonight has been exciting, and too close to call. With provisional ballots still out, it is anybody's race," he said in a statement released late Thursday.
Andraé McGary, 32, a Chattanooga city councilman and former radio talk show host, emerged as the winner of the three-man Democratic primary, beating Hamilton County School Board member David Testerman and Quenston Coleman, a retired state probation and parole officer.
"Right now the fun begins," McGary said. "Right now we have to convince a largely Republican area that we're not laying down and playing dead."
He said he intends to appeal to Republican voters and demonstrate he can take a bipartisan approach to issues of concern to Hamilton and Bradley counties in areas like economic development.
In the GOP race, Hamilton County Election Commission attorney Chris Clem said the military absentee votes had been counted in Hamilton County. He said there were only 10 to 15 provisional ballots. The votes will not be official until Aug. 16 in Hamilton County. Clem said the loser then would have five days to request a recount.
Efforts to reach officials in Bradley County were unsuccessful late Thursday night.
The heated GOP primary was characterized by high spending, missteps and arguments over who is the real conservative.
The Gardenhire/Vital battle sucked up most of the attention in a district that Republican lawmakers reshaped to make more winnable for them in November.
Incumbent Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, chose not to seek re-election and instead launched a 2013 Chattanooga mayoral bid.
Vital, 56, founder of a chain of assisted living centers, touted his business background, community service in areas like land preservation and vowed to "move the conservative agenda forward."
Gardenhire, 64, an investment adviser and a political veteran, furiously worked traditional and newer conservatives.
He won endorsements from the National Rifle Association, Tennessee Right to Life and the Tennessee Conservative Union. TCU President Lloyd Daugherty did a radio ad for Gardenhire.
Vital received hefty financial backing from businessmen and company or industry political action committees. He loaned his campaign $125,000, while Gardenhire put at least $57,000 into his effort.
Vital stumbled at least twice. One case involved him saying in speeches and elsewhere that he had graduated from college when he had not.
Then, at a public forum, Gardenhire accused Vital or his campaign of masterminding an anonymous mailing that contained a 15-year-old protective order sought by Gardenhire's then-wife. The judge dismissed the matter nine days later, records show, and the couple remained married until 2008.
Vital initially said he had "no idea" whether his campaign had been involved. Gardenhire lashed out at him as a "Pinocchio." Two days later, the Vital campaign officials denied any involvement.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...