published Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Scott DesJarlais donors defecting to Jim Tracy


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — At least 18 donors to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais have pledged money, support or both to the congressman's opponent, adding to a growing list of defections amid personal scandals and political fallout.

Along with 25 state legislators, the 18 DesJarlais donors publicly have endorsed state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, in the 2014 Republican primary for the 4th District.

Tracy is the only candidate so far to challenge the Jasper, Tenn., physician, whose re-election campaign and victory celebration were rocked by revelations from his long-ago divorce.

"I was not aware they'd given to DesJarlais," Tracy said in a recent interview. "I didn't go back and check, to be honest with you. I just called people."

Interviews with donors established a common dichotomy: public praise for Tracy and private disappointment in DesJarlais. The former supporters simply don't see their congressman the same way after salacious revelations spurred ethics complaints and a collective cold shoulder from current and former Republican officials.

A family practice doctor, DesJarlais was forced to empty his war chest when court records revealed a checkered past days before the election. Interviews and documents showed he had sex with two female patients and tried to persuade one to get an abortion.

Court documents obtained by the Chattanooga Times Free Press confirmed that the anti-abortion politician supported his ex-wife's abortions in the 1990s; slept with patients and co-workers while chief of staff at a Jasper hospital; bought expensive gifts for his patient-lovers; and prescribed one pain medication during their affair.

"Not real excited"

Shelbville, Tenn., banker Scott Cocanougher donated $500 to DesJarlais last year. He said many donors were "not real excited with the stuff that came out in the press."

"I don't want to use the word 'runaway' because it's still so early," Cocanougher said, "but Jim has a very strong financial foothold here."

Two spokesmen for DesJarlais did not respond to a request for comment, but in a recent statement, campaign manager Brandon Lewis said, "We are confident that we will continue to receive support from like-minded conservatives and small-business organizations."

Trend emerges

But a broader trend is emerging: Political action committees for Unum, BlueCross BlueShield, the American Academy of Family Physicians and others have distanced themselves or pulled back funding from DesJarlais; top elected officials in Washington and Nashville have kept the congressman at arm's length; and former supporters are switching sides as Tracy prepares a March 14 fundraiser for 2014.

Last year Danny Robbins gave $1,000 to DesJarlais, but the Shelbyville, Tenn., security consultant considers himself a Tracy man these days.

"I'm not going to say anything negative about Scott DesJarlais," Robbins said in an interview, "but Republicans need to remain as scandal-free as possible."

Steve Smith, an influential fundraiser and Murfreesboro businessman, gave $4,500 to DesJarlais last year. But he said he's already given more to Tracy for 2014.

"When you run for office, you rip your shirt off for all to see," Smith said. "We all have our own problems. I live in a glass house, so I won't be throwing any rocks at Congressman DesJarlais."

The defections can't be described as a financial mass exodus. DesJarlais raised $1.2 million during the last election, and the 18 donors have given him $32,800 since the 2010 cycle. But that's triple the campaign cash -- $9,337 -- the congressman had on hand at the end of 2012.

Meanwhile, most other Tennesseans in Congress reported six-figure campaign accounts. Five boasted more than $1 million despite expensive campaigns leading up to November's elections.

Open support

Shunning the usual reluctance to take sides in a contested primary, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson; and 23 other GOP legislators are openly supporting Tracy. Several make a living in the medical field.

"It's not that I'm against Scott DesJarlais," said Watson, a physical therapist. "I just think Jim Tracy would be an outstanding congressman and represent the district well."

Gov. Bil Haslam hasn't picked a side, but recently said DesJarlais should question his own effectiveness in the socially conservative and mostly rural 4th District.

Even some of DesJarlais' closest colleagues in Washington are hesitant about saying much. Asked last week if he would support the incumbent in 2014's 4th District race, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann deflected the question.

"We are focusing exclusively on our race. We don't really get involved with any other races. ... I don't think that's my role," the Ooltewah Republican said.

State Reps. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, also are considering 4th District bids.

Ethics complaints against DesJarlais are pending with the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners and the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed reporting.

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