Tea party candidate. Maverick backbencher. Primary target.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais has worn all of those labels in the two years he’s been in politics. But now his public career appears to have taken a turn that could be the biggest surprise of all: standard-bearer of the Tennessee Republican establishment.
Just 15 months after he shocked the political world with his win over Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis, DesJarlais has grown into a surprisingly strong candidate for re-election. But even as his road clears to the Republican nomination for the 4th Congressional District, the freshman congressman still could face a forceful challenge in November.
Since arriving in Washington in January 2011, DesJarlais has earned a reputation for taking a hard-line stance on budget and spending issues.
He voted against a debt-reduction plan put forward by House Speaker John Boehner in July, a debt-ceiling compromise in August and a government-funding measure in December. With those votes, DesJarlais opposed Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other Republican leaders.
The first-term congressman also often has found himself on the other side of the voting rolls from the other three Tennessee Republicans — U.S. Reps. Diane Black, Chuck Fleischmann and Stephen Fincher — who rode the tea party wave to office in 2010.
“I think that I’m willing to cooperate on policy, but I’m firm on principle,” DesJarlais said. “The American people said in a mandate election that we need to stop spending.”
War chest grows
Democrats say that makes him part of the problem in Washington, a bit player in a dysfunctional Congress that has reached new depths in public opinion polls.
But DesJarlais has stuck to the platform that won him the Republican nomination in 2010, when he eked out a narrow victory in the primary and then crushed Davis in the general election by an 18-point margin. His inflexibility on economic issues raised speculation last year that GOP leaders might try to replace him with a Republican more willing to take cues from leadership.
That theory gained currency as Republicans in the state legislature approved new district boundaries in January that placed Rutherford County in the reconfigured 4th District. With nearly 40 percent of the voters, Rutherford could be a springboard for any GOP challenger.
Yet with time winding down to mount a serious primary challenge, several potential foes have ruled out running against him.
State Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, says he will not run, despite toying with the notion for nearly two years. State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and former Rutherford County GOP Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik — both of whom came within percentage points of capturing the Republican nomination for the 6th Congressional District two years ago — also decided to sit out the race.
Meanwhile, DesJarlais has amassed a campaign chest that could scare off challengers. The first-term congressman had nearly $437,000 in the bank at year’s end, which puts him in the middle of the pack among Tennessee incumbents — not beyond a challenger’s reach but with a pretty good head start. Perhaps more importantly, his donor list shows gifts from the same GOP leaders he has defied, Boehner and Cantor.
“It’s very, very difficult for party leaders in D.C. to turn on an incumbent,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, who advised U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro, for more than two decades. “I’m really not surprised that they would stick with him.”
Tennessee Republicans also appear ready to back him, saying DesJarlais’ willingness to buck leadership in Washington may have strengthened his standing in Tennessee.
“That’s something that’s settled up there with the House caucus and Congress,” said Chris Devaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “With his constituents, Congressman DesJarlais has a very good voting record.”