WINCHESTER, Tenn. — U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais kicked off his 2014 re-election campaign Wednesday by dismissing fellow Republicans’ attempts to unseat him and asking voters to back him for having “stood up to President Barack Obama and his far-left allies.”
Some 100 DesJarlais supporters braved threatening rain to hear the South Pittsburg physician announce from the courthouse steps that he’ll run for a third term in the 4th Congressional District.
Their loudest cheers came as DesJarlais vowed to continue to oppose Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Republicans call Obamacare, by seeking to starve it of funding.
“We’re the last line of defense between President Obama and his radical vision for America,” he said. “If we do not take a stand, then who will?”
DesJarlais’ re-election bid comes amid continued fallout from his past personal problems and slow fundraising. He’s raised far less than his 2014 GOP primary rivals state Sen. Jim Tracy, of Shelbyville, and state Rep. Joe Carr, of Lascassas.
DesJarlais in 2010 defeated Democratic incumbent Lincoln Davis despite disclosures he displayed erratic behavior in 2000 when he and his former wife were having marital problems. In 2012, the anti-abortion incumbent’s re-election bid was thrown into turmoil after revelations he encouraged a patient-turned-lover to seek an abortion after she told him he got her pregnant.
The congressman easily prevailed over a Democrat in the general election. But then a transcript of his 2001 divorce trial surfaced that showed DesJarlais had agreed with his then-wife’s two abortions and had had sex with two former patients. A complaint was lodged with the state Board of Medical Examiners, which reprimanded DesJarlais and fined him $500.
Tracy and Carr have criticized the congressman’s past actions. DesJarlais said Wednesday the critics are merely trying to divert attention from his performance in office.
“It’s no secret that my opponents and the media love to pick apart mistakes I made in the 1990s, long before I ever decided to run for Congress,” DesJarlais said.
“We’ve endured about three years of rather vicious attacks. But through all this we’ve come to realize they have no better option than to try to tear me down personally, because they certainly haven’t found a way to attack me on what I stand for and how I do my job as a congressman.”
His supporters, many of them tea party members, cheered as DesJarlais said he has challenged the “Washington machine” and “ruffled” the establishment, including GOP leaders, on issues like pushing to cut debt.
Warren County Tea Party member Donna Reid, of Morrison, was in the audience.
“That’s the past,” she said of DesJarlais’ previous actions. “What he does right now is what we sent him up there to do.”
Supporter Judy Johnson, of Sewanee, said, “They can say all the scandals they want about Scott DesJarlais, but they need to start cleaning out Washington first.”
But Gregory Gleaves, who was the executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party during DesJarlais’ 2010 race, said the congressman’s chance for re-election is “minimal.”
“His political damage is severe and the past several months have shown it to be sustained. His money has completely dried up and his support across the district has flatlined,” Gleaves said.
Earlier Wednesday, The National Journal, a nonpartisan Washington political publication, released a list of the top 10 lawmakers “who could lose a primary next year.”
DesJarlais was in the No. 1 spot.
Tracy and Carr have far out-paced DesJarlais in fundraising. Tracy ended the second quarter with $656,000 in cash on hand. Carr had $275,000. DesJarlais had just $88,000 after raising $39,000 in the second quarter.
But the congressman said that with the GOP primary exactly a year from Wednesday, it’s time to start campaigning and raising money.
Asked later by reporters about his National Journal ranking as the most vulnerable House incumbent, DesJarlais said, “This will be my fifth race, and I guess I’ve made a career out of being underestimated.”
He said he doesn’t hear much about his past “mistakes” from constituents.
“I hear we have big issues in Washington and we want you to go up there and fight for those issues.”
Asked what voters should make of his anti-abortion stances in light of his personal actions, DesJarlais said, “I think they can look at my voting record. It’s 100 percent pro-life.”
He said he can bridge the campaign cash gap “through a lot of hard work.”
During his announcement, DesJarlais was flanked by his second wife, Amy, and two of his children. He has said he turned his life around after meeting her, believes God has forgiven him for his past and hopes voters will consider doing the same.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, ...