NASHVILLE — Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ sweeping rural district stands to see the state’s biggest redistricting changes as the freshman prepares his re-election bid.
Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart of Winchester decided not to wait to find out the new shape of the district in announcing his candidacy for the 4th District seat last week. But several potential Republican challengers have said they want to see the new boundaries before deciding whether to challenge DesJarlais in the primary.
The 4th District encompasses all or part of 24 counties arching through two time zones from the Kentucky border over the Cumberland Plateau to the Alabama line. Population changes during the last decade have left the district 17,000 people short of the ideal set by the 2010 census.
An obvious place to find the extra population would be among the fast-growing suburban counties outside Nashville, but some in the state Legislature worry about changing the makeup of the district.
“It traditionally has been the fourth-most-rural district in the country,” said state House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican who lives in the district. “We’re proud to be a rural district, and we are a little bit concerned about a suburban or urban anchor becoming involved.”
Matheny said the plans won’t dwell on whether the incumbent maintains a clear path to re-election or on the political ambitions of potential challengers.
“That’s really not a concern,” Matheny said. “It’s more about making sure that all of the counties can have equal access to funding and attention from the federal government, and not having one usurp the others.”
But businessman Jack Bailey of Franklin, who finished second to DesJarlais in the GOP primary last year, recalled the challenges of campaigning in the vast district. To drive from his home in Williamson County to the northeastern corner of the district would take him through four other congressional districts, he said.
“The problem with that district is it doesn’t represent any particular homogeny of any sense, whether it be geographic or topographic,” Bailey said. “It’s a disparate district, and our redistricting process should do a better job of putting together districts that have some cohesiveness.”
DesJarlais, a Jasper physician, won the GOP nomination with 37 percent of the vote and was the overwhelming winner in the general election last year. He was the only Tennessee freshman to defeat a sitting congressman in longtime incumbent Rep. Lincoln Davis, a conservative Democrat who had until then held on to his seat despite growing Republican support among his constituents in presidential contests.
Davis outspent DesJarlais and ran ads attacking the Republican over allegations of abuse raised in his divorce from his first wife. They included claims that he once held a gun in his mouth for three hours and that he repeatedly pulled the trigger of an unloaded gun outside his former wife’s bedroom door.
DesJarlais, who denied the allegations, not only deflected attacks, but managed to turn the tables on Davis for going negative.
But DesJarlais, who declined an interview request from The Associated Press, remains largely an unknown in Tennessee political circles, especially among the ranks of state lawmakers who control the redistricting process.
And the congressman has been the least prolific fundraiser among the Tennessee freshman, which does little to dissuade potential challengers from entering the race — especially if it is redrawn to include more populous areas from the fast-growing suburban counties east of Nashville.
The $395,705 he had raised through the most recent reporting period fell more than $1 million short of fellow first-term Republican Rep. Diane Black, the fundraising leader among the state delegation.
DesJarlais had $317,545 left on hand in his campaign account, the least among the state’s nine House members. And he has spent less than $100,000 on his re-election bid so far.
Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro is widely considered to be considering a bid for the 4th District seat if it is redrawn to include his area of Rutherford County.
Two candidates who came within a few hundred votes of beating Black for the GOP nomination in the 6th District last year could also become a factor.
Murfreesboro businesswoman Lou Ann Zelenik and Republican state Sen. Jim Tracey of Shelbyville said they are waiting to see how the district lines are drawn before making a decision on whether to seek another bid.