By almost any measure, Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart faces an uphill financial battle against Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the race to win Tennessee's 4th Congressional District.
But according to Stewart aides, a 4-to-1 DesJarlais cash-on-hand advantage isn't insurmountable, considering higher margins in other congressional races across Tennessee. That includes an 8-to-1 spread in the neighboring 3rd District race between U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Dr. Mary Headrick.
According to reports filed July 13 with the Federal Election Commission, DesJarlais had $591,976 in the bank to Stewart's $152,712. Because neither man faced a serious primary opponent, most of the money was reserved for a November general election that's accepted as the closest congressional race in Tennessee.
"It's the only game in town" for Democrats hoping to pick off a House seat from Tennessee Republicans, according to Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer.
"Most of the Democratic candidates are politically inexperienced," Oppenheimer said, "but Stewart has already won a state Senate race. So he's got a record, and he has visibility."
A native of Winchester, Tenn., Stewart has said his unheeded calls to debate -- DesJarlais recently refused three meetings -- have generated a new enthusiasm in a district that Democratic leaders view as within reach.
"Over 1,100 different individuals have contributed to our campaign," Stewart said in a statement Friday. "We certainly feel the momentum building in fundraising, grass-roots efforts and overall support for our campaign."
Unlike other Tennessee Democratic hopefuls, Stewart is PAC-friendly, racking up $83,000 in political action committee contributions since last November. But DesJarlais has raised $331,000 in PAC money, and incumbency has plenty of other inherent advantages.
DesJarlais campaign manager Brandon Lewis said, "We are on target to have one of our very best quarters" -- a strong statement when compared to earlier quarterly efforts. In April, South Pittsburg resident DesJarlais brought House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to an outside-the-4th District fundraiser in Chattanooga. That event alone fueled a $220,000 DesJarlais haul between April and July of this year.
"Our message of smaller government, lower taxes and a larger economy is resonating within the 4th District," Lewis said.
Stewart aides plan to blanket the 16-county district with attacks on DesJarlais' support for U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's budget, which calls for cuts to social welfare programs including Medicare and Medicaid. They also plan another offensive on the question of debates.
Meanwhile, DesJarlais' campaign will attempt to tie Stewart with President Barack Obama and brand him as out of touch with a district that adopted tea party values in 2010 after eight years of former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat.
The 4th Congressional District includes Bledsoe, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties as well as portions of Bradley County.
The election is Nov. 6.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-757-6610.