Eric Stewart releases polling memo, declares 4th District race in “dead heat”

Authored By James Harrison

Any lead enjoyed by Rep. Scott DesJarlais in Tennessee’s 4th District race has all but evaporated-according to a memo for an internal poll released by his Democratic challenger Eric Stewart Wednesday.

Stewart touted “huge momentum” one week after news reports revealed that DesJarlais, a Jasper physician, had slept with a former patient and encouraged her to terminate a pregnancy in September of 2000. The congressman, elected on a pro-life, family values platform in 2010, has not denied the content of a phone transcript between him and the unnamed woman, but has argued that she was not pregnant and that no abortion took place. 

DesJarlais said he had become frustrated and resorted to using “strong rhetoric” during the conversation. 

Despite the congressman’s explanation, the survey of “400 likely voters” showed DesJarlais leading Stewart by a score of 49 percent to 44 percent-a spread within the poll’s margin of error. The survey was conducted by a Virginia-based polling firm, Myers Research and Strategic Services, on Sunday and Monday of this week.

In a news release, Stewart said the numbers indicated voters had become hesitant to send DesJarlais back to Washington, D.C., for another term. The candidate labeled his opponent’s past as a “national embarrassment.”

“The people of Tennessee deserve to have a congressman to represent them that has not caused the type of national embarrassment that we’ve seen from Rep. DesJarlais,” Stewart said. “He has been an embarrassment to elected officials, to the state of Tennessee and to the medical profession.”

Although the Stewart campaign declined requests by for the specific wording of questions in the poll, the memo distributed by his campaign described many voters’ opinions of the congressman decreasing after being presented with last week’s news on prior events in his life.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, said the poll indicated Stewart would attempt to keep the new information regarding DesJarlais’ past in front of voters.

“Obviously, when you provide information before a poll, it changes the outcome of the poll,” Oppenheimer said. “It does show that when people are informed about DesJarlais, they change their opinion, which wouldn’t surprise us. But the question is, can you inform constituents sufficiently about it and keep that in front of them for the next three weeks? That’s the real question.”

On Tuesday, campaign finance records showed DesJarlais with a cash-on-hand advantage nearly six times the amount reported by Stewart’s campaign. 

Responding to the polling memo, the congressman’s campaign dismissed the findings and criticized Stewart for not releasing the entire poll.

Brandon Lewis, campaign spokesman for DesJarlais, suggested that Stewart’s opting to use a polling agency specializing in Democratic candidates and progressive causes was indicative of the results he distributed on Wednesday. 

“It’s only fitting that he would use Barack Obama’s polling firm,” Lewis said. “Our internal polling shows support is strong, and the fact that Eric Stewart refuses to release his poll in its entirely clearly reveals he is using the same misleading tactics that have characterized his campaign.”

When asked to reveal any polling conducted by the DesJarlais campaign, Lewis declined to respond.

The election is Nov. 6.