WINCHESTER, Tenn. (AP) — Well-known details about U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais — including that he once urged a mistress to seek an abortion and held a gun in his mouth for hours outside his ex-wife’s room — didn’t deter Republican primary voters from giving him a possible shot at a third term.
The primary race remained too close to call Friday, with DesJarlais ahead of challenger Jim Tracy by just 35 votes in unofficial results. That number could shift as provisional ballots are counted, and the final result could drag on for weeks as election officials certify results and consider potential challenges.
Tracy raised far more money than DesJarlais and had been expected to easily win. But DesJarlais’ tea party base appeared willing to overlook his personal scandals, offering another lesson in the staying power of ideology in a country increasingly polarized by politics and perceived cultural showdowns.
“Tennesseans chose to judge me on my record in Washington,” DesJarlais said in a statement after Thursday’s primary voting. During the campaign, he stressed familiar tea party-style attacks on President Barack Obama over issues like health care and the assault on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
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 was fined and reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May for having sex with patients before he was elected.
Tracy, an insurance agent and former college basketball referee, stressed themes of integrity in his campaign against DesJarlais. That message resonated with some voters like Linda Warpool of Murfreesboro, who said she was tired of the incumbent’s scandals.
“Too much sex. Too many abortions,” she said.
But in rural Franklin County, about 90 miles south of Nashville, DesJarlais won more than 73 percent of the vote. Voters here said they were well aware of the scandals surrounding DesJarlais, but they still believed he would work for them.
Jane Blackwood, a retired nurse from the community of Keith Springs Mountain, said voters at least knew what they were getting with DesJarlais.
“I trust him absolutely,” Blackwood said. “He believes in the way I do. He has voted in the way I wanted him to vote.”
She said that as a Christian, she believes in forgiveness and that what happened with the congressman a long time ago was “old news.”
Others in the rural portion of the district said Tracy’s campaign focused too much on DesJarlais’ past personal life at the expense of telling voters what he planned to do if elected.
“I felt like it was mudslinging and that’s all it was,” said Jonathan Daniels of Estill Springs, who along with his wife, Patricia, voted for DesJarlais because the negative ads were a turn-off.
However, negative ads have proven effective if they’re based in fact, said Vanderbilt University professor John Geer, who has written a book on political attack ads. Tracy appeared to have been too cautious, he said.
“He certainly ran some negative ads, but he didn’t go after them hammer and tongs as he could have, because he thought he was in a very strong position and didn’t want it to backfire,” Geer said.
“In some ways he let DesJarlais get off the mat.”
Another factor in DesJarlais’ win: He managed to cast himself as an outsider, despite being a two-term incumbent.
“You had a two-term member of Congress running as the anti-Washington guy, and a state senator trying to ‘primary’ a sitting congressman as the establishment guy,” said Republican political operative Chip Saltsman. “And it was an anti-establishment year.”
The tea party’s most notable victory came in Virginia, where little-known professor Dave Brat knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Others have held off formidable tea party challenges, including Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
Adam Nickas, a Republican campaign consultant and former executive director of the state GOP, said there was a broad consensus after 2012 that DesJarlais’ wouldn’t survive.
But Nickas said ongoing media attention led voters to rally around their incumbent.
“So ironically, the best ally the congressman has had since the story broke has been the national media,” he said.
Schelzig reported from Nashville.