Will Abortion Hypocrisy Haunt DesJarlais in Thursday Primary?

Tennessee congressman faces young challenger with aggressive ground game

Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais is being challenged by a 28-year-old former Mitt Romney aide. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Among the House Republicans circulating through the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland two weeks ago was Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais.  

It wasn't unusual to see Republicans from solidly red districts at a convention that their more vulnerable colleagues avoided. But while DesJarlais hails from a safe Republican district, he himself is not safe.  

During the 2012 general election, documents made public from DesJarlais' 2001 divorce proceedings revealed that the self-described "pro-life" physician encouraged his then-wife and a mistress (who was also a patient) to have abortions.  

The revelations came too late to hurt him that cycle. He easily won re-election to his Republican seat.  

But he faced a tough primary in 2014, winning by just 38 votes  in a recount against state Sen. Jim Tracy.  

[ Should Vitter's Loss Worry Scandal Plagued Lawmakers? ]  

DesJarlais is facing yet another competitive primary in Tennessee's 4th District on Thursday against a young opponent with an aggressive ground game who's knocking on doors in places that Tracy didn't.  

"If Tracy had run this campaign, he would have beaten DesJarlais by double digits," said one Republican with knowledge of the state. Which is why DesJarlais spending a week in Cleveland, miles away from his district, looked like a risky move.  

Former Mitt Romney aide Grant Starrett, a 28-year-old Murfreesboro lawyer, is trying to run to DesJarlais' right. That's not an easy thing to do against a member of the House Freedom Caucus.  

[ Young Republican Explores Primary v. Scott DesJarlais

A Bible and a Glock

Starrett's campaign is painting him as the "faithful conservative" in the race. He's recorded a five-minute video in which he describes how he become a Christian and he's tweeted photos of his bedside table to show off his Bible and his Glock.  

Starrett, a Stanford and Vanderbilt law graduate, has pledged to make his primary campaign against DesJarlais about "policy differences" not "personal issues."   

[ As Leaders Stay Silent on DesJarlais, Members Groan, Look the Other Way ]  

That's been tried before. Tracy mostly danced around DesJarlais' private conduct. Only in the final two weeks of the campaign did he air an ad called "hypocrisy."  

“Reprimanded, fined for unethical conduct, he deliberately deceived the voters," the ad said, alluding to fines DesJarlais incurred for having a romantic relationship with a patient.   

Starrett is going after DesJarlais for voting for food stamps, a reliable red-meat policy jab in a conservative district.  

But it's the challenger's attacks on the life issue that may really resonate in a way that previous attacks haven't.  

Even if he's not attacking DesJarlais directly for his personal experiences with abortion, Starrett's critique of the congressman's anti-abortion credentials comes off as an implicit attack on DesJarlais' personal past.

Voted right?

"DesJarlais has always said he’s messed up in the past but voted right," said one Republican operative, who praised Starrett's "smart strategy" of linking DesJarlais' past behavior to policy.  [ Planned Parenthood Gives DesJarlais Challenger an Opening ]  

In one particularly hard-hitting ad called "Sonogram," a quote from DesJarlais flashes on the screen in which he says he doesn't know when life begins . Starrett, meanwhile, has maintained that life begins at conception.   

The narrator in the ad then hits DesJarlais for failing to hold Planned Parenthood accountable.  

Starrett has seized on a House Government Reform Oversight Committee hearing on Planned Parenthood in which DesJarlais declined to ask a question of the group's president, Cecile Richards.  

"You've been betrayed by Scott DesJarlais," the narrator in the ad says emphatically.   

DesJarlais has said he yielded his questioning time so a female member of the committee could pose a question. He's pointed out that he signed on to the Defund Planned Parenthood Act and has a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life.   

Mailers going after DesJarlais have been even more direct. One piece of literature from the Starrett campaign shows DesJarlais besides a cooler labeled "Planned Parenthood" with "Dead Baby Parts $500" written on it.  

DesJarlais hasn't accepted that Starrett's attacks are limited to policy. He's accused him of launching into the personal, and his campaign has fired back, calling him "Mr. California" in a mailer.  

Starrett moved to the district in January 2015. His out-of-state ties and the fact that he worked for Romney may not go over well in a state that voted for Donald Trump.  

And in a low-turnout primary, DesJarlais may do well among party loyalists who have moved beyond his past indiscretions and were won over by the congressman last cycle when he was diagnosed with cancer.   

"We’re getting back 15, 20 years," DesJarlais told Roll Call when pressed last year 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."   

But with Starrett running a better campaign on the ground and raising and spending more money — much of it his own — this young challenger may have a chance to unseat the three-term incumbent.  

Starrett impressed early with a hefty war chest propped up by a lot of his own money. He raised $600 during the short pre-primary reporting period from July 1-15 and spent $191,000. He ended the period with $377,000 in the bank.  

DesJarlais has fared worse when it comes to raising money. He received just $100 during the pre-primary period ending on July 15. He spent $73,000 and ended with $250,000.   

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