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Planned Parenthood Gives DesJarlais Challenger an Opening

DesJarlais, shown practicing for a football game between members of Congress and Capitol Police, again faces a primary challenge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Grant Starrett, 27, doesn't think Rep. Scott DesJarlais has been conservative enough for Tennessee's 4th District. DesJarlais thinks his voting record speaks for itself. "If he wants to run to the right, there’s not much room," the Republican lawmaker told CQ Roll Call last week.  

But there is room on one issue.  

On his social media accounts and at events across the district, Starrett repeatedly called for the government to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood. DesJarlais' social media accounts are devoid of similar entreaties.  

"Certainly everyone is concerned about what we’re seeing from Planned Parenthood in terms of the videos," DesJarlais told CQ Roll Call. The three-term congressman signed on to co-sponsor the Defund Planned Parenthood Act and he noted he's signed a letter to the Department of Justice "to investigate what we’re seeing," referring to undercover videos that show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal organs and tissue from abortions.  

Instead, the Iran deal, veterans' affairs and burdensome government regulation are the issues DesJarlais said he expects to be talking about in the district during the August recess; he didn't mention Planned Parenthood.  

Starrett hasn't questioned DesJarlais' past positions on abortion, as he has his position on the Export-Import Bank  or food stamps, and he’s never mentioned him in any of his tweets about Planned Parenthood.  

"I’m focused on his record and my vision. I’m going to lay it out that I do strongly believe in defunding Planned Parenthood," Starrett told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. "I'll leave it to him ... I’m not getting into personal issues."  

He doesn't have to.  

By speaking out on an issue that's energizing social conservatives in a way that DesJarlais cannot, Starrett could end up hitting the congressman where it hurts.  

"[Starrett] may not even have to say all that much, but just by taking a leadership role, there could just be an implied contrast," said one Tennessee Republican of Starrett's vocalism on the Planned Parenthood videos. "He will be freer to take an even more high-profile stance on something that a majority of Tennesseans value, which is the life issue."  

Since the fall of 2012, DesJarlais, a physician, has been plagued by revelations he encouraged his now-ex-wife to have two abortions  before they were married and that he had sexual relations with several patients, one of whom he also encouraged to get an abortion.  

"We’re getting back 15, 20 years," DesJarlais told CQ Roll Call when pressed about how his constituents view his past. "There are certainly things in my life where I’ve made mistakes that have shaped who I am now."  

Those "mistakes" (not to mention the $500 fine he received from a state medical board) haven't yet tarnished his electoral record. By the time the scandal came to light in 2012, he'd already secured the GOP nomination. In a district that went for Mitt Romney by double digits, the Republican primary is the only contest that matters.  

If DesJarlais were going to lose , it looked like it was going to be in the 2014 primary against state Sen. Jim Tracy, when donors cut the incumbent loose. But despite being outspent , DesJarlais, who was diagnosed with cancer late in the race, won that contest  — albeit by only 38 votes .  

Tracy mostly danced around the scandal, making passing references to DesJarlais' integrity. Only in the final two weeks of the campaign did Tracy launch an attack ad  calling him out for "hypocrisy."  

Starrett is employing the same subtle strategy Tracy did for most of his campaign. But the conservative frenzy over Planned Parenthood is giving Starrett an opportunity that Tracy didn't have.  

Still, addressing DesJarlais' abortion position requires a delicate hand, especially given the congressman's socially conservative voting record. He has voted with the National Right to Life Committee on every vote the organization has scored since 2011, and Starrett couldn't think of an abortion vote that he would disagree with him on.  

"I think after three election cycles now, [voters have] seen my voting record and the fact that I will represent them appropriately," DesJarlais said.  

But even with his ethical problems farther in the rearview mirror and his congressional office insisting he's cancer free , DesJarlais' fundraising hasn't recovered. He raised just $52,000 in the 2nd quarter of 2015. That's particularly woeful compared to Starrett 's $733,000 haul, although $227,000 of that came from a personal loan and, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press analysis , only $1,500 came from donors living in the 4th District. One Republican suggested Tennessee donors are waiting to see if DesJarlais even goes through with running for re-election before opening their checkbooks.  

Meanwhile Starrett is making a name for himself, devoting attention to the more rural, blue-collar areas where DesJarlais has traditionally done well.  

But where Starrett sees an opening, DesJarlais sees a carpetbagger.  

"The most glaring difference is that I’ve lived and worked in 4th district for 20 years," DesJarlais said of Starrett, who moved to the district in January. Originally from California, Starrett came to Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt Law School.  

Republicans in the state praise Starrett for knowing his weaknesses and being eager to address them.  

"I was pretty desperate to get out of California," the Stanford graduate has been repeating to the media, noting that he's always loved Tennessee. (He'll talk at length about how former Tennessee politician James K. Polk is his favorite president.)  

Starrett's campaign work for Romney — a more establishment Republican than he's trying to be — could also strike social conservatives as disingenuous, especially when their current representative is already known a conservative.  

But the choice, Starrett said in a subtle jab, is about "who better represents Tennessee values."  

Related: Young Republican Explores Primary vs. Scott DesJarlais Scott DesJarlais Wins by 38 Votes, Jim Tracy Concedes Scott DesJarlais' Re-Election Hopes Rise, Despite Abortion Scandal

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