NASHVILLE - Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais is slamming Democratic rival Eric Stewart on "Obamacare" in a new television ad, but the underfunded Stewart's fortunes may be in for a substantial change.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday switched Tennessee's 4th Congressional District to its "red to blue" category, a designation indicating Democrats think it's a winnable seat and intend to devote resources to Stewart's battle with the Jasper physician.
Stewart announced the move Thursday in an email to supporters, saying he has "more good news" after his campaign on Wednesday released an internal poll that Stewart says shows him in a "dead heat" with DesJarlais.
"Our race for Congress has just been added to the DCCC's 'Red to Blue,' which lists the top campaigns across the country," Stewart says in the email, which also includes this fundraising appeal: "We need your help in this race, today!"
DesJarlais enjoys a huge cash-on-hand advantage over Stewart, a state senator from Winchester, and is currently pounding him in television ads over what he says is Stewart's support of "Obamacare."
But what was widely seen as a safe Republican district took a dramatic twist last week after revelations DesJarlais asked a former patient with whom he had had a relationship to seek an abortion 12 years ago.
The anti-abortion congressman later acknowledged a transcript of their recorded conversation was genuine.
DesJarlais, however, has said he knew the woman wasn't pregnant and was using "strong language" to get her to admit she wasn't expecting. There was no pregnancy and there was no abortion, said DesJarlais. He said the brief relationship with the unnamed woman occurred at a time he and his then-wife were separated after filing for divorce.
A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman did not return a reporter's call about the addition of Stewart to the organization's "red-to-blue" status on its website.
On its website, the DCCC says the program "highlights top Democratic campaigns across the country, and offers them financial, communications, grass-roots and strategic support."
It remains unknown whether it will mean the DCCC will pour substantial money into ads in the 15-county district, which includes part of Bradley and all of Marion, Rhea, Grundy, Sequatchie, Warren and other area counties.
DesJarlais' campaign issued a statement, saying "Eric Stewart's support of Barack Obama and Obamacare shows Tennesseans that he is a true-blue, smear tactic liberal who hopes his out-of-state cronies will help him steal this seat while ignoring the real issues of unemployment, exploding deficits, and a stalled economy that Congressman DesJarlais has fought to change."
But while the DCCC is keeping its lips sealed, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" wasn't on Wednesday night as it targeted DesJarlais in a biting political satire.
Show host Stephen Colbert recognized the congressman as the show's "Alpha Dog of the Week," highlighting a statement on DesJarlais' website which says "all life should be cherished and protected."
"DesJarlais recently proved his flexibility by lifting his leg," Colbert said, "and peeing on his own position."
"Shocking!" Colbert said. "A conservative Republican congressman was caught having an illicit affair - and it wasn't with a man."
Meanwhile, DesJarlais' ad is slamming Stewart, accusing him of calling the federal Affordable Care Act "great."
"Great," a woman announcer says, "a word used to describe a quiet moment of fishing, a [UT] Vols win, a plate of barbecue. But great is how Eric Stewart describes Obamacare. Bureaucrat between patient and doctor - great. $700 billion in Medicare cuts - great. ... There are a lot of great things in Tennessee, but Eric Stewart and Obamacare are not one of them."
The ad cites a Times Free Press article from this summer in which Stewart said repeal of the law would kill popular provisions such as one that fills in a gap in Medicare drug coverage for seniors known as the "doughnut hole."
Repeal, Stewart said, also would allow insurance companies to continue denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions and parents wouldn't be allowed to keep their children on their plans until age 26.
"Given all those great things that are in it, no, I wouldn't vote to repeal it," Stewart said. "Now, it still needs some work. ... What we need are leaders who can go up there and do the job they were sent to do and that's work together and solve the problems."
Staff writer Chris Carroll contributed to this report.