NASHVILLE — Dismissed as burnt toast after a scandal over affairs and abortions in late 2012, is it possible Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais could pull off a victory in his 4th Congressional District GOP primary with Jim Tracy?
GOP strategists who long ago had written off the two-term South Pittsburg physician now privately say the race has tightened. Some believe the outcome isn't clear, although others still give the edge to Tracy, a state senator from Shelbyville.
"I don't know," said one operative who backs Tracy.
That's a major turnaround from the conventional wisdom in this election cycle.
DesJarlais, a conservative pro-life candidate, rode the anti-Barack Obama wave in his first 2010 race and handily defeated a Democrat two years later in the largely rural district. That happened despite revelations that he had urged a patient with whom he had had an affair to get abortion.
After the election, more details from DesJarlais' 2000 divorce hearing, showed he had gone along with his ex-wife in getting two abortions and had affairs with two patients and prescribed pain medications for one of them. He was fined in 2013 by the Board of Medical Examiners over the affairs with patients.
Conventional thinking was DesJarlais would be finished in a GOP primary. In early January 2013, Tracy jumped in hard, saying he hoped to unseat the man who "betrayed and deceived" voters about his past.
But DesJarlais apologized, saying the offenses occurred years ago and that he was now happily married. He said he believed God had forgiven him and asked voters to consider doing likewise.
Tracy made little of the old dirt early in the campaign. His first ad in June danced around the issue, talking about his own "integrity" and questioning DesJarlais' ability to be effective.
But after his campaign got a poll ahead of early voting, his TV spots and direct mail have become progressively harder, although GOP strategists said he still had not tied his criticism into a neat package.
His latest ad may do that: It features TV news footage from 2012 with one news anchor citing a conservative group that in 2012 called on DesJarlais "to resign," the revelations about multiple abortions and more.
"Scott DesJarlais deceived the voters," the ad's announcer says. "Voters should show him the door."
Dr. John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said that with no public polling data, it's a little early to begin "jumping to conclusions."
Still, it's likely a low-turnout election, he said.
"It's probably closer than we think in the sense it's not going to be a blowout. But at the same time Tracy's got more money. There's a lot problems facing DesJarlais, and we're really guessing in some sense at this point in time."
But, Geer noted, "the fact that the Tracy people are ratcheting up the attack tells us whatever reconnaissance they have is telling them it's a little closer than they'd like it to be. I'd still put my money on Tracy. But I wouldn't want to put a huge amount on it."
Tracy could benefit from Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's efforts to turn out voters in his own GOP primary with state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and Memphis physician George Flinn, Geer said.
Some Murfreesboro voters seemed split last week. The city is in Rutherford County, which was added to the 16-county 4th Congressional District in 2012. It represents nearly 30 percent of primary voters in the 2012 primary and is important for Tracy, who once represented a good part of Rutherford in the Senate.
"I personally like Jim Tracy, but I voted for DesJarlais. I like the way he's voted in the past," said Robert Hoge, who said DesJarlais' past wasn't an issue for him. "Who can cast the first stone on that one?"
Barbara Ellis, who said she knows Tracy and voted for him, called him a "good moral man" in whom "I have a lot confidence. ... I don't agree with everything Jim's done, but he's a good man."
DesJarlais said over the weekend that "I think we are in a great spot and momentum is on our side."
He said he is proud of his record in Congress -- the National Journal ranked him the fourth most-conservative member -- and added, "I believe the people of Tennessee's Fourth District feel I have done a good job in representing them."
Tracy, he charged, "knows he can't attack my record so he turned to the same old desperate personal attacks used by Washington Democrats in the last two elections. They did not work then and they will not work now. I believe I have listened and I have led and at the end of the day voters care more about that than a 15-year-old divorce."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
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, ...