Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais held a strong lead over Democrat Eric Stewart late Tuesday in an election dominated by revelations about the Jasper physician's decade-old extramarital affairs and acknowledgment he once pressed a patient he dated to seek an abortion.
Unofficial state tallies showed DesJarlais ahead of Stewart, a state senator from Winchester, with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the 16-county 4th Congressional District.
DesJarlais and several legislative candidates gathered at a law firm in Winchester, Stewart's backyard, awaiting results. Cheers erupted whenever reports of DesJarlais carrying various counties came in.
Late Tuesday night, DesJarlais led in every county, including Stewart's home county of Franklin. However, results from Rutherford County, the district's largest, were slow in coming.
Given the size of Rutherford County and delays in vote tallies there, DesJarlais campaign manager Brandon Lewis told reporters that the campaign was holding off making a victory announcement.
"We are still very, very confident of victory, have been since our campaign has started," Lewis said. "This has been for a long time the race that wasn't."
Supporter Bill Coffman, 69, said he knew that the charges against DesJarlais "cost him a lot of votes," but that they never shook his confidence in the congressman.
"I'm a conservative and so is he," said Coffman, a retiree. "He's the only congressman I've supported that's gone to Washington and voted the way I wanted him to vote."
Stewart has said he had no regrets about pushing issues related to DesJarlais' messy 2001 divorce from his then-wife, Susan.
The disclosures about DesJarlais' personal life turned the freshman congressman's expected easy re-election into one of the ugliest Tennessee congressional races in decades.
Some voters found it difficult to square news about the recorded abortion conversation with his oft-touted opposition to abortion rights.
In mid-October, a 2000 transcript surfaced of a recorded conversation between DesJarlais and an unnamed woman, whom he had briefly treated for a foot injury and later had sex with in the midst of his divorce.
"You told me you'd have an abortion, and now we're getting too far along without one," DesJarlais tells the woman at one point.
The 48-year-old congressman later acknowledged that the conversation occurred, but he sought to explain it away, saying he knew the woman wasn't actually pregnant. DesJarlais said he used "strong language" in an effort to get to the truth. There was no pregnancy and there was no abortion, he maintained.
Late last month, a second woman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she smoked marijuana with DesJarlais and that he prescribed pain medication for her on dates. DesJarlais hasn't disputed the details.
The revelations drew national attention and sent state Republican leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam, fleeing.
DesJarlais, however, was helped by the unpopularity of Democratic President Barack Obama in the largely rural district, which includes part of Bradley County and all of Meigs, Rhea, Marion, Sequatchie, Warren, Franklin, Rutherford and other Middle Tennessee counties.
The congressman touted his conservative credentials and attacked Stewart, who had endorsed Obama after some reluctance, as well as the Democrat's favorable remarks about the president's federal health care overhaul.
DesJarlais outspent Stewart 2-to-1, reporting $846,491 in expenditures through Oct. 17.
The congressman rolled up his biggest margins in Bradley, Moore and Lincoln counties, where he led with about two-thirds of the vote late Tuesday. He was up by double digits in Marion County, his home, as well as in Rutherford County and several others.Heather Grader, a 27-year-old preschool teacher from Murfreesboro, said she voted for DesJarlais because she voted straight Republican. She was not bothered by the allegations against him because she saw them as part of political mudslinging.
She blamed both Stewart and DesJarlais for running negative campaigns. "I would say they both did it," she said.
While DesJarlais defeated Stewart, Tennessee Republicans expect the congressman will face stiff opposition in 2014 from GOP challengers. Republican operatives say state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, is actively exploring a race.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.