Conservative Rep. DesJarlais Faces Primary Challenge In Tennessee

fromWPLN

One of the most conservative members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, is defending his seat against state Sen. Jim Tracy, who is making the most of the incumbent's personal scandals.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the most conservative members of Congress is at risk of losing his job. Next month - August 7 to be precise - IS Tennessee's Republican Primary. And in the state's fourth Congressional District, Republican Scott DesJarlais is up against a challenger, Jim Tracy, who's making the most of the incumbent's personal scandals. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Teams of giant mules clip clop through the town square of Columbia, Tennessee. It's the Mule Day parade when just about anyone running for office turns out to saddle up, smile and wave at voters.

REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT DESJARLAIS: This is our ride - not bad?

FARMER: That's a representative Scott DesJarlais standing on top of a mule-drawn wagon. He's a small-town doctor with a shaved head and prominent eyebrows. He's represented this conservative district since 2010 when he was a relative unknown. His challenger Jim Tracy is just a few floats back, but in the race, Tracy is considered the front runner. That's because DesJarlais has been held back by the one thing that most voters have heard about.

TERESA HALL: Something about the abortions last year - something like that.

FARMER: What substitute teacher Teresa Hall is referring to is a scandal that's dogged DesJarlais. Court documents from a messy divorce show that the self-proclaimed pro-life lawmaker supported his previous wife's decisions to have two abortions, and that he also pressured a mistress who was a patient of his to have an abortion. Abortion is a dirty word in this district. DesJarlais calls it old news.

DESJARLAIS: We think that when it comes down to people walking in the voting booth, they're going to look at what kind of a job I've done. They know for three and a half years, I've been a consistent conservative vote.

FARMER: DesJarlais is considered one of the most conservative members of Congress, but his personal troubles have made him vulnerable.

JIM TRACY: I'm running for Congress. Now you're going to see me all summer.

FARMER: Jim Tracy is a state senator. He's a former high school coach and insurance salesman. He's long had aspirations to get to Washington. Tracy greets a few old-timers flipping flapjacks at a pancake breakfast. One shouts, all you had to say is you're running against DESJARLAIS.

TRACY: I'm running against DesJarlais. So I need your vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: DesJarlais.

FARMER: Tracy has exploited DesJarlais's past. His first TV ad was about integrity. A recent mailer is more explicit. It has the word babies spelled with toy letter blocks - abortions, affairs. The mailer says, we can't trust DesJarlais to fight for our values.

TRACY: I don't dance around it. I mean, people will make a decision on his record and what he believes about abortion and other things. People will decide on that when they vote.

FARMER: GOP donors have already made up their minds, especially in the business community. They've helped Tracy out-raise DesJarlais several times over. There've been very few endorsements on either side, with Republican lawmakers neither wanting to turn on an incumbent nor offer DesJarlais their support. Some Tea Party groups have backed the congressman who's attacked Tracy for helping bring Common Core education standards to Tennessee. And at least one prominent host on local conservative talk radio has come to DesJarlais's defense. Here's Michael DelGiorno.

MICHAEL DELGIORNO: I know what you've been through and, quite frankly, the despicable in-party personal attacks on you and your family when I know you to be a good husband and a good father.

FARMER: So it's still a race, and both men are wearing out the campaign trail, occasionally winding up at the very same event.

DESJARLAIS: Scott DesJarlais.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Good to meet you.

DESJARLAIS: Good to meet you.

FARMER: At a Farm Bureau ham breakfast, DesJarlais shakes hands, sticking with pleasantries and avoiding the topic on everyone's mind. Jim Tracy is literally right behind him trying to pick off DesJarlais's supporters.

TRACY: Oh, I'll get him. I'll get him. I can tell you I can get him.

FARMER: Another complication for DesJarlais is a recent diagnosis of neck cancer. His treatment has already begun, and he's expected to recover. He may, yet, stage a political comeback, too, with a power of incumbency on his side and voters' willingness to forgive. Back on the Mule Day parade route, Randy Whitehead is selling chickens. He says DesJarlais's shouldn't be tossed out just for having skeletons in his closet.

RANDY WHITEHEAD: He's a human, isn't he? Everybody makes mistakes. So there you go.

FARMER: To forgive or to move on - those are the options in Tennessee's fourth Congressional District Primary. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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