County-level Republican Party leaders across the 4th Congressional District are split over supporting U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais if he seeks a third term in 2014.
On one hand, they take pride in proclaiming "the election is over" and praise their congressman for supporting conservative policies in Washington. On the other, they have a difficult time squaring DesJarlais' anti-abortion, family-values platform with new details from his pre-political life.
Both attitudes have emerged since the Chattanooga Times Free Press published court records showing DesJarlais supported his ex-wife's two abortions and had sexual relationships with two patients, three co-workers and a pharmaceutical saleswoman when he was a physician and medical chief of staff at a Jasper hospital.
Asked to look ahead two years, some GOP leaders said they haven't decided whether they would dial for dollars, plant yard signs, corral volunteers or get out the vote for DesJarlais as they did this year.
"I don't know what I'll do in 2014," Marion County Republican Party Chairman Howard Cotter said. "Do I agree with what happened in his past? Of course not. But what's in his heart today? Only the Lord knows that."
Other county-level Republican leaders called publication of DesJarlais' own sworn testimony a "witch hunt" that will drive GOP activists to support the congressman during what's shaping up to be a contested primary.
"I think we've lost a lot of good candidates based on things being [dragged] out of closets," Bledsoe County Republican Party Chairwoman Nicole Swafford said. "He's a family man right now, you know?"
David Carleton, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said local GOP leadership will be important to DesJarlais' political survival as Republican heavy hitters line up against him in the 2014 primary.
"It's activists and party stalwarts who vote in these low-turnout midterm races," he said. "So party officials can add that extra 5 percent in a tight primary."
Grundy County GOP Chairwoman Iva Michelle Russell said DesJarlais' relationships with patients and "fight with the devil" on abortion make him a stronger legislator today. She said she didn't feel misled when DesJarlais' campaign claims were stacked against his own sworn testimony.
"I may disagree with the rest of society, but in the rural neck of the woods, hell, yeah, we've got his back," Russell said. "If everyone's so concerned about his morals and ethics, my God, they should have done something 12 years ago.
"What sways me is his new wife stands by him," she said. "We are all flawed."
Others residing in the rural areas between Chattanooga and Nashville said they hadn't heard the latest DesJarlais news. Many 4th District locales don't see the Chattanooga Times Free Press or The Tennessean, both of which have driven statewide DesJarlais coverage. And the congressman granted a Thanksgiving interview -- his first since the scandal broke -- to the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is published in very few 4th District counties.
"You probably couldn't talk to somebody who knows less about all this," said Lincoln County Republican Party Chairwoman Molly Elrod.
When a reporter informed Elrod of DesJarlais' admitted track record, she said "people change" on abortion. But she said she'll ponder DesJarlais' documented history of sleeping with female patients.
"A year from now," she said, "I'll be thinking of that when we're considering if somebody should run against him."
Potential 2014 Republican opponents to date include state Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas; state Sen. Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro; state Sen. Jim Tracy, of Shelbyville; former Cracker Barrel Old Country Store executive Forrest Shoaf; and former 3rd District candidate Weston Wamp.
Rutherford County Republican Party Chairman Austin Maxwell said he would be more likely to criticize DesJarlais if the abortions and affairs had occurred while the congressman was in office -- "not all these years ago."
Still, he knows the issue isn't going away.
"I'm sure any challenger, Republican or Democrat, will use it," Maxwell said. "Scott will be the one that'll have to explain it and justify it."
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...
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