Fighting against nearly $1 million of campaign ads from three independent groups opposed to his re-election, one of Tennessee’s best-known Democratic “blue dogs” is becoming an attack dog.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., a conservative Pall Mall Democrat seeking his fifth term in Congress, is airing commercials about allegations of threatening behavior from a decade-old divorce by his Republican rival, Dr. Scott DesJarlais. Davis said the ads are designed to counter what he says are unfair attacks on his record.
“These outside groups have put their attack dogs on me, so if I have to be, I can be a bulldog too,” Davis said. “These special interest groups are coming in and throwing money around trying to steal an election and have the best Congress that money can buy, not the best Congress for America.”
* Party: Republican
* Age: 46
* Education: Degrees in chemistry, psychology and medicine from the University of South Dakota
* Career: A native of South Dakota, he moved to Marion County in 1993 to practice medicine. He has not previously run for public office
* Personal: He and his second wife, Amy, have three children and reside in Jasper
* Issues: Opposes stimulus plan and bailout measures; wants to repeal the Obama health care plan and extend all of the Bush tax breaks
* Party: Democrat
* Age: 67
* Education: Degree in agriculture from Tennessee Technological University
* Career: He owns a construction business, Diversified Construction Co., and has served in Congress since 2002 after previously serving as mayor of Byrdstown and as a state senator.
* Personal: He and his wife, Lynda, have three grown daughters and five grandchildren and live in Pall Mall, Tenn.
* Issues: He is pro-life, anti gun control and voted against the 2008 financial bailout plan and the 2010 health care reform plan. He supported he president’s stimulus plan.
GOP-leaning groups began their own counter-attack this week with TV ads blasting Davis for recommending the husband of his niece for a state police job back in the 2003 even though he had a criminal record.
In what is shaping up as one of Tennessee’s toughest fought congressional contests, both campaigns in the Fourth District race are reaching into the past of their opponents to determine the future representation of Tennessee’s biggest and most rural congressional district.
DesJarlais, a 46-year-old Jasper physician who is making his first run for elected office, accuses Davis of trying to divert attention from his political record as a Democrat in what is becoming a more Republican district.
“We’re trying to solve problems for our country, but instead of talking about less government, lower taxes and more freedom we’re talking about whether allegations from a 10-year-old divorce have any merit,” he said.
DesJarlais released a poll Friday by his pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, claiming that DesJarlais has moved into a 45 percent to 40 percent lead over Davis. Davis said his last poll showed him with a 15 percent advantage.
DesJarlais said the survey of 300 registered voters in the district this week shows “voters are fed up with dirty politics” and have dismissed Davis’ charges against him.
“It was a long drawn-out divorce and at a time when you are with a person who knows you best they can also say the most hurtful things and I don’t think that is unusual in a divorce,” DesJarlais said. “But in his ad, (Davis) says I have a history of violent, threatening behavior. There’s no history and no documents that indicate that.”
Chris DeVaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Davis’ ad “is a flat out lie.
“Lincoln Davis is in desperation mode and for a guy that paints himself as a moral upstanding person to put out an ad like this is despicable,” DeVaney said.
Dr. DesJarlais said his intends to sue the Davis campaign for libel and slander.
Davis said he welcomes such a lawsuit from DesJarlais because “then we would get to open up all the records, including the depositions in this case that will absolutely expose everything that happened.”
In the divorce pleadings with his first wife, Susan, attorney L. Thomas Austin claims DesJarlais “became violent and threatening, dry firing a gun outside the locked bedroom door” and “holding a gun in his mouth for three hours.”
DesJarlais denied the incident ever occurred, noting that the judge in the divorce case ultimately agreed to divide up the couple’s assets, giving DesJarlais his guns and awarding joint custody of the couple’s son, who is now age 12.
“These are allegations that were never proven and are simply false,” DesJarlais said.
In another incident in 2001, however, Chattanooga police reported that DesJarlais “became extremely agitated” when an officer told him to leave the Gunbarrel Road apartment complex in Chattanooga where his ex-wife was living. The officer said it was the second time he had intervened in a dispute between the couple.
DesJarlais said the off-duty police officer was a friend of his ex-wife “and I felt like I was being set up.”
“This is like the Dukes of Hazzard when the officer breaks out someone’s light and then writes him a ticket,” DesJarlais said.
DesJarlais insists that the judge wouldn’t have accepted the truth of the allegations made by his wife and then given him his guns in the property settlement or shared custody of his son. But Davis said DesJarlais never argued in court that the allegations were not true.
“This is about him, not his divorce, and everything we have said is backed up by court records that were never denied by him or denied by his attorney,” Davis said.
In his divorce degree, Marion County Chancellor Jeffrey Stewart criticized the behavior of both DesJarlais and his ex-wife.
“Frankly, the conduct of both parties has been below what I think would be the standard you would want your child to have after you raised him to adulthood,” he said.
Davis’ aid to relative
For his part, DesJarlais’ campaign claims Davis is trying to distance himself from his fellow Democrats even though he votes with is party most of the time.
“He says one thing at home in Tennessee and does quite another in Washington D.C.,” said Brent Leatherwood, campaign manager for DesJarlais.
In response to Davis’ attacks, the National Republican Congressional Committee began airing ads this week attacking Davis for writing a letter of recommendation for the husband of one of his niece’s, Marty Brown, despite a drug conviction as well as assault and shoplifting charges in the past.
Andre Sere, regional press secretary for the Republican Congressional Committee, called Davis “a hypocrite” for criticizing DesJarlais when he himself was involved in helping someone with a criminal record get a state job.
Davis insisted he didn’t know Brown had a criminal record “and as a state senator, I wrote similar letters for probably 50 persons where I knew the family or something about the individual.”
independent groups weigh in
The ad is part of $500,000 being spent for commercials by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Meanwhile, the conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform, is spending another $476,182 — $13,394 in video production and $462,787 to air an ad attacking Davis, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“Tennessee families are struggling, but instead of extending tax cuts, Washington liberals invited a comedian [Stephen Colbert] to Congress and then went home,” the ad’s announcer says. “Now, Lincoln Davis is helping Nancy Pelosi set the stage for one of the biggest tax increases in history.”
Davis spokesman John Rowley called the ad “ridiculous,” saying Davis “is one of the most pro-tax cut members of Congress ... It’s an upside-down Alice in Wonderland attack.”
And yet another attack on Davis is coming in the form of direct mail from Americans for Limited Government. It was unclear how much they are spending.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is striking back with its own ad slamming the “image” DesJarlais seeks to project and hitting him again on the allegations in the divorce case made by his then-wife.
“Behind the image, reports of violent, threatening behavior. Is Scott DesJarlais the right man for Congress?” the ad’s announcer says.
No document on expenditures for the ad were available on the FEC website Friday afternoon.
As one of 54 members of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, Davis insists he is independent of any party. In one of his commercials, he displays a circle with a line through it over the faces of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“I will take positions because they are right for the people of Tennessee’s Fourth District, not because they are right for Democrats or Republicans alone,” he said.
But DesJarlais said Davis votes with his party 94.9 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post voting data base analysis of 1,463 votes.
The Jasper physician said he decided to run for Congress after hearing so many complaints from his patients and others about the direction of Washington.
“We need a change in Washington and I’m eager to work for a smaller government and more freedom to help put people back to work,” DesJarlais said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...