AT A GLANCE
Name: U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Background: A physician by trade, DesJarlais was elected to Congress in 2010, during the tea party wave that gave the GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives. He represents the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Rutherford County to the Chattanooga suburbs.
Elected after the Affordable Care Act passed, he has supported efforts to roll it back.
NASHVILLE — Gene Folgers didn't know much about U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais when the doctor from South Pittsburg first ran for office three years ago. The retired Army training instructor has met him only a few times since then, and doesn't know much about him still.
But he's been watching DesJarlais' voting record, and that has convinced him to get behind his re-election bid.
"I know a lot of people in the district didn't trust him," Folgers said. "But you go by their votes. ... When a person has done a good job and is improving on the job, that's how I'm going to vote."
Now, all DesJarlais needs is about 40,000 more voters just like Folgers.
The second-term Republican has been on a wild political ride: from dark-horse candidate, to surprise tea-party winner, to GOP standard-bearer and finally to political outcast -- all in the span of about 36 months.
Now, the congressman is trying on one last label -- incumbent -- in his bid to secure a third term. And he's selling himself as a man in touch with the people who elected him to begin with.
Running for the first time since messy personal details emerged from court records more than a decade after his 2001 divorce trial, DesJarlais has been tagged by some as the most likely congressman in the country to lose his seat next year. He has been on the outs with his party's leaders in Washington, Tennessee Republican leaders have abandoned him, and money is flowing into the campaign of his GOP primary opponent, state Sen. Jim Tracy.
But DesJarlais is making one more pitch to voters. The one-time outsider now presents himself as a legislator who wants to work across party lines and solve his constituents' problems.
"I look at it this way," DesJarlais told about a dozen people in the basement of a Farm Bureau Insurance office in Murfreesboro this month. "It's pretty simple: There's 700,000 people in a congressional district, they pick someone to represent them, and my job basically is to come to listen and get a feel for what goes on in my district.
"And then I go back to Washington and when it comes time to vote, I hopefully vote for the majority. But it takes outreach."
The approach requires finesse for a candidate who has entertained the notion that the Affordable Care Act may have been a plot to destabilize the health care industry and bring about "socialized medicine." It has meant putting some distance between himself and the tea party activists who have been his strongest supporters.
But asking voters to focus on his record also changes the subject from the topic that hangs over his campaign: his divorce file. Although bits and pieces of that record started to dribble out in 2010, next year's campaign will be the first in which voters and his opponents will have all of its salacious details before they go to the polls.
That file contains ample fodder for any challenger looking to discredit the conservative lawmaker. In it, the anti-abortion congressman testifies that he supported two abortions by his first wife. The record also contains a transcript of a conversation in which he appears to pressure a second woman, a patient he began dating while still married, to travel out-of-state for an abortion. (DesJarlais says he thought the woman's claims to be pregnant by him were false.)
The record includes allegations that DesJarlais dated and prescribed pain medication to a second patient. He was fined $500 in May by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners for those two patient liaisons.
The file also says DesJarlais threatened his former wife by dry-firing an unloaded pistol at a bedroom door and that he held a gun to his head during an argument.
All of it has led to bipartisan predictions that DesJarlais' campaign is doomed as well as unflattering comparisons to some of Washington's most notorious scandals.
"There are questions that go to his character, his judgment," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of a national political handicapping newsletter. "This is kind of the Anthony Weiner problem. There comes a time when you've so violated the public's trust."
DesJarlais always has been a bit of an unknown quantity, a candidate so obscure that one of his first campaign ads was a riff on how to pronounce his name (Day-zhar-lay). But he was fortunate enough to win a five-way GOP primary in 2010, a year when Republicans rode a backlash against President Barack Obama's election and his health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, to take back the House of Representatives.
That fall, DesJarlais surged late to overtake U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, a three-term Democrat with a conservative voting record. Not even the first wave of details from DesJarlais' divorce record, a series of disclosures that painted a picture of erratic behavior, could break DesJarlais' momentum.
DesJarlais easily beat back a primary challenger in 2012, the first election after redistricting made the 4th Congressional District decidedly more Republican. He then survived a second wave of divorce file disclosures to defeat Democratic state Sen. Eric Stewart, in part by delaying full publication of the file until after voters had cast their ballots.
The 2014 election essentially began as soon as the 2012 vote ended. Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who has served in the state Senate since 2004, announced on Jan. 2 that he would take on DesJarlais. State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, entered the race a couple of months later.
But Carr since has dropped out to take on U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, leaving the field open to Tracy. Federal records show Tracy has raised $767,804 for his congressional campaign. Meanwhile, DesJarlais netted $160,714 for a campaign that was all but depleted in 2012.
Yet DesJarlais has shown some vigor since launching his bid for a third term in August. His wife, Amy, has been a frequent companion on his trips around the 4th District, an implicit rebuke to anyone who might make an issue of his divorce more than a decade ago.
"My wife Amy and I knew what was in my divorce record from 12 years ago when we got married," DesJarlais said. "Anybody can get that. Anyone can see it. When people can't talk about something else, that's what they talk about."
DesJarlais does have the advantage of being able to use his office to earn favor with voters. The congressman can boast a staff of a dozen people, eight of whom he says spend the majority of their time on constituent service.
Committee assignments also help the congressman get in front of the voters. DesJarlais often allies himself with U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman. Issa has led numerous inquiries into the Obama administration, including its handling of the attacks in Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service's review of nonprofit organizations and the Fast and Furious gun operation.
DesJarlais' duties also give him an opportunity to meet voters without having to draw on his campaign. Recently, DesJarlais held two forums in Murfreesboro -- a crucial community for anyone hoping to represent the 4th District -- as well as events in the southern end of the district, outside Chattanooga.
At the Farm Bureau office, DesJarlais focused on his efforts to pass a farm bill and the travails of the Affordable Care Act. Later, he appeared at the Tennessee State Veterans' Home, pledging to a crowd of servicemen that he would fight for their medical care.
DesJarlais did not bring up his divorce, nor did audience members. Instead, the congressman took shots at the Affordable Care Act, while also finding room to praise some provisions, such as those that extended coverage to young adults and people with pre-existing conditions. He also lamented that Congress had not been able to pass a bipartisan agriculture bill.
"I don't identify with any one group," DesJarlais said in an interview later. "That's kind of a problem with politics. So often there's a temptation to become beholden to one group."
All the while, aides were on hand to supply details on arcane policy points and jot down the contact information of constituents.
"I think he's doing a good job," said Damon Young, a former combat medic who now lives in Murfreesboro. "I've been thinking about campaigning for him."
But it's unlikely such piecemeal vote-gathering will add up to a winning campaign strategy, said Rothenberg. He cited DesJarlais' fundraising difficulties and noted that the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, a political action committee associated with the conservative organization, last week endorsed Tracy.
"DesJarlais is going to lose, and he's going to lose badly," predicted Rothenberg.
There's little evidence to suggest Rothenberg is wrong. Then again, there was little to suggest DesJarlais ever would have been a congressman in the first place.
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