A Chattanooga judge will hear a motion Monday to unseal portions of U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais' divorce records, according to a news release from the Tennessee Democratic Party. Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Bolton will preside over a 9 a.m. hearing at the Hamilton County Courthouse. Gerard Stranch, chief legal counsel for the state party, filed a motion on Oct. 24 requesting that the entire record be open for review.
NASHVILLE — What many thought would be an easy glide to re-election for U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais has turned into a white-knuckled ride for the freshman Republican congressman.
Revelations that the Marion County physician dated two patients and once pressed one to seek an abortion rocked the campaign in the last three weeks.
His Democratic opponent in the 4th Congressional District race, Eric Stewart, who has repeatedly attacked DesJarlais as a "hypocrite" over the abortion discussion, contends he has closed much of the gap in the contest.
But the congressman's campaign says DesJarlais still has a substantial lead. Republicans, meanwhile, feel good about DesJarlais' chances of winning in the largely rural, conservative district, which includes all or part of 16 counties.
Several Rutherford County voters who cast early ballots in downtown Murfreesboro this week told reporters they voted for DesJarlais along with the rest of the GOP ticket despite a barrage of ads from Stewart and a Democratic "super PAC" ad attacking DesJarlais.
"I'm fairly well a Republican down the line," said Keith Sears, 48, who works in the construction industry. "I don''t know a whole lot about Stewart."
The congressman, who touts his opposition to abortion rights, recently issued an open letter to supporters, saying that "through grace and redemption, God has truly given me a second chance. I have had an incredible marriage to my wife Amy of 10 years and have been blessed with an opportunity to raise three wonderful children."
He has asked voters to judge him on his congressional tenure and current marriage, not his previous marriage to Susan DesJarlais. They divorced in 2001.
DesJarlais has acknowledged having had a brief relationship with the first woman in the midst of his divorce from then-wife Susan and having used "strong language" about her going to Atlanta to get an abortion. He also urged her to get an ultrasound.
But he told the Times Free Press last month the transcript of their recorded conversation represented his effort to get the woman, whom he had not seen in four months, to admit she wasn't pregnant. He says the woman wasn't pregnant and there was no abortion.
The DesJarlais campaign also denounced a Times Free Press article on Sunday in which a second patient, who spoke on condition she not be identified, said she had a six-month relationship with DesJarlais in 2000 during which they smoked marijuana.
But Republicans say that if nothing else, DesJarlais should benefit from a district they designed to be more Republican in redistricting earlier this year.
Republicans and independent observers also say the coattail effects of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and voter opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama will help DesJarlais.
"I think if you look at the fundamentals of the district, it's very hard for Stewart to pull it off," said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst and reporter for the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report.
While the Rothenberg Political Report on Friday switched the district from "lean Republican" to "toss-up/tilt Republican," Taylor said "we still give DesJarlais a slight advantage." If the revelations about the abortion conversation had surfaced earlier, it might be different, she said.
The congressman has proved to be a largely conservative voice in Congress, earning endorsements from the National Rifle Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He voted against raising the national debt ceiling and opposed the federal health care overhaul, dubbed "Obamacare."
In his ads, DesJarlais has struck hard at Stewart, accusing him and Democrats of using "recycled garbage" from his 2001 divorce.
The congressman also plays up Stewart's support of Obama as well as comments made by Stewart that he believes some portions of Obama's health care overhaul are "great."
Stewart has said he will oppose Obama when he thinks he is wrong. He also says he has problems with some aspects of "Obamacare," such as the mandate requiring individuals to get health insurance.
During a Murfreesboro event with veterans this week, Stewart dismissed DesJarlais' allegation that he is running a "smear" campaign.
"When the congressman puts 'Dr.' on every one of his signs and all of his ads, I think he brought into play his practice of medicine," said Stewart, a state senator from Winchester.
At a fundraiser in September, Stewart hit DesJarlais for refusing to debate him.
Attending this week's Murfeesboro event was Rutherford County Democratic Party treasurer Mike Cowger, 64.
According to Cowger, DesJarlais, who has avoided public events, is counting on Republicans voting along party lines to eke out a victory.
"He gets 49 percent in this county without saying a word," said Cowger, an engineering consultant who lives in Smyna. "He knows if he opens his mouth, he loses votes."
Tennessee Republican officeholders have distanced themselves from DesJarlais. After the transcript of the abortion conversation first surfaced, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he wanted to discuss the matter with DesJarlais before commenting. In an Oct. 11 text message to Haslam, DesJarlais said, "thanks for withholding judgment. I am happy to chat at your convenience."
The governor has yet to talk with DesJarlais.
"I have a lot of legislative races I'm involved in. I'm the governor of the state," Haslam said. "A congressional race really isn't the thing I think I need to be involved in right now."
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, ...
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