Two years is a lifetime in politics. Just ask Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
GOP operatives had all but written off the Tennessee Republican . In October 2012, it was revealed the anti-abortion rights physician had encouraged an ex-wife to have two abortions prior to their marriage and had carried on multiple affairs with patients and co-workers — an infraction for which he was fined $500 by a medical board. It was too late for DesJarlais to face a serious challenge that cycle, but he soon became one of 2014's most vulnerable House members . As DesJarlais' campaign cash flow dried up, he faced a formidable foe: state Sen. Jim Tracy. Until recently, Tennessee Republicans expected Tracy, a longtime state politician, to cruise past DesJarlais in the Aug. 7 primary. But in the final days of the race, DesJarlais is in a better position than Republicans ever anticipated.
He might even win. "I would say that my opponent counted me out early on, and my opponent's team — he’s got some people who are well-based in Washington, Ward Baker and Brad Todd — and they have not been shy to use the propaganda machine," DesJarlais said in a Wednesday morning phone interview. "But we’ve all kept our heads down and focused on our job, and it’s amazing how people do pay attention. ... I'm hopeful that we are rewarded for that."
There's an obvious sign DesJarlais is in a stronger position than Tracy anticipated. Until recently, Tracy referred to DesJarlais' scandal in subtle pokes and prods, lacing his ads with words like "integrity." But this week, Tracy's campaign released a scathing television ad with headlines from the DesJarlais abortion scandal.
"The press says Congressman DesJarlais no longer has credibility," a narrator says in the 30-second spot. "Reprimanded, fined for unethical conduct, he deliberately deceived the voters. Conservatives said DesJarlais should resign because of his hypocrisy. Scandal makes DesJarlais ineffective in Washington."
The ad followed a mid-July mail piece from Tracy's campaign that featured an image of children's building blocks spelling out the word "baby," according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press . The mail piece read: “Abortions. Affairs. Abuse of Power. We can't trust DesJarlais to Fight for Our Values.” But GOP operatives say these hard-hitting attacks might have come too late.
Republicans said many in the district have already forgiven DesJarlais' behavior. They add that DesJarlais has done a good job of selling himself as one of the House's more conservative members who's willing to buck leadership.
"They say he’s said his piece, it's between him and God," said Hillary Pate, communications director for Tennessee Republican Senate candidate George Flinn. "They are focused on his voting record, and he has a very conservative voting record."
In yet another twist, DesJarlais announced in mid-July that he's been diagnosed with cancer in his neck and will undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The news garnered sympathetic press for DesJarlais.
"I continue to get cards and letters daily with thoughts and prayers and wishes for a speedy recovery," DesJarlais said.
Those well wishes and two years of asking for forgiveness have made him the front-runner in his own primary.
Republican operatives said DesJarlais shouldn't start celebrating yet, but they note he's in a good position given his massive cash disadvantage.
As of July 18, Tracy had raised more than $1.4 million for the race and spent most of it, save for the $354,000 he has in the bank. DesJarlais raised just $434,000 for the entire contest and, as of July 18, had $113,000 in cash on hand.
Tracy continues to heavily outspend DesJarlais in the final days of the race — especially in Rutherford County, the home of the Nashville suburbs and population center of this otherwise rural district. That chunk of the seat was added following the decennial redistricting process, and DesJarlais has only appeared on the ballot there once.
If Tracy is able to target that segment of the district and turn them out, he could see a victory on primary election day.
"I'm not willing to say for sure that anything is a done deal, but it’s closer than it should be," a second unaffiliated GOP operative said. "But that doesn’t mean that Tracy at the end of the day doesn’t pull it off, just because there’s a huge cash advantage, and Rutherford County is such a huge portion of the electorate in the new district. I think it’s going to be hard for DesJarlais to overcome Tracy in the Nashville metro area."
Tennessee's 4th District is rated Safe Republican by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it with 65 percent last cycle.
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