Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe scored a major upset Thursday by narrowly defeating freshman GOP incumbent U.S. Rep. David Davis’ re-election bid in the 1st Congressional District Republican primary, according to unofficial results.
About midnight, the Associated Press declared Roe the winner in the mean-spirited race between the two Johnson Citians.
“We’ve won the race,” Roe said at his chaotic campaign headquarters in Johnson City. “I think (the margin of victory) is close to 600 votes. It’s over. This race is history. ... You’ve seen how hard we’ve worked in this six months. We put a great volunteer organization together and had a good media campaign.”
But, at midnight, Davis had not conceded to Roe.
Davis said it was too early to tell if there would be a recount.
“Some military votes are not in. Some absentee (votes) are not in. We’re just going to wait and see,” Davis said after midnight.
Unofficial results showed Roe with 25,916 votes compared to 25,416 for Davis.
The last time a 1st Congressional District incumbent failed in his re-election bid was in 1950, when Republican Dayton Phillips was defeated by fellow Republican B. Carroll Reece, a prior incumbent and former Republican National Committee chairman who wanted his old seat back.
The district’s largest bloc of voters in Sullivan County went to Roe, who took 54 percent out of about 9,100 votes cast, according to the county’s election commission.
Roe also got more than 6,500 votes in Washington County compared to about 5,400 for Davis. Roe also apparently won Carter and Cocke counties, but Davis took Hawkins and Sevier counties, according to late returns from the Tennessee Division of Elections.
Both candidates billed themselves as conservatives, but they ran negative TV ads against one another leading up to lackluster turnout at the polls.
As midnight got closer, fewer than than 50,000 votes had been counted in the GOP primary. A little-known third name on the Republican ballot, Mahmood “Michael” Sabri, received 325 votes.
About 73,000 voted in the district’s 2006 Republican primary — which featured about a dozen candidates trying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. William L. “Bill” Jenkins.
On that primary day, long lines of voters overwhelmed Sullivan County voting locations, and many believe that contributed to Davis’ tight primary win over former Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable. Roe finished fourth.
Through mid-July of this election cycle, Davis’ campaign had outspent Roe by about $150,000 and raised more than $265,000 in funds from political action committees.
Roe, who attacked Davis for accepting PAC money into his campaign account, pledged to take no PAC contributions. But Roe did give his own campaign about $260,000 in loans and personal funds, according to the Federal Election Commission. Davis had a $160,000 personal debt left over from his 2006 election effort.
Instead of campaigning in the district on Wednesday, Davis had joined a group of House GOP lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to protest last Friday’s House adjournment without taking a vote on energy legislation.
The winner in the district’s Democratic primary was Kingsport Democrat Rob Russell, who had 4,091 votes compared to 1,970 votes for fellow Kingsport Democrat Mike Donihe.
Russell, a teacher and administrator who ran his primary campaign on a shoestring budget, said he has rallies lined up in district counties to get his general election effort moving forward.
“There are a lot of people helping me out as far as volunteers go. ... There are Democrats, independents ... so I need a chance to pull all those folks together and move in the right direction,” Russell said.
A Democrat hasn’t held the 1st Congressional District seat since Reconstruction.
Click here for results from the Sullivan County Election Commission's Web site.
Click here for results from the Tennessee Department of State's Web site.