NASHVILLE — As he seeks re-election, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., hopes Republican primary voters focus on his staunchly conservative record in Congress and forget, or at least forgive him for, what he once described as the "darkest secrets" of his personal life.
But the Jasper physician's GOP challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy, is counting on voters in the 4th Congressional District's Aug. 7 primary neither forgetting nor forgiving DesJarlais over the personal abortion revelations from DesJarlais' long-ago past.
The pair are among seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the 4th, but DesJarlais and Tracy are far and away the front-runners in terms of name recognition and campaign warchests. The winner of the Republican nomination will face Democrat Lenda Sherrell of Monteagle in November. Sherrell has no opposition in the primary.
Early voting in Tennessee started Friday and will continue through Aug. 2.
Tracy, 57, argues that the pro-life DesJarlais has been rendered ineffective by disclosures from records in the physician's own messy 2001 divorce that emerged during and after his 2012 election to a second term.
"It gives people a choice between me and him," Tracy said recently. "Who do the people think would be the most effective? And in being the most effective, you take everything into consideration."
Among the disclosures: Prior to their 1995 marriage, DesJarlais went along with his first wife's decision to have two abortions. In one case, he testified, it was because she had become pregnant while taking an experimental drug that posed "potential risks."
Years later, after he and his then-wife split up and were seeing other people before the divorce was finalized, he had sex with a patient and encouraged her to seek an abortion when she said she was pregnant, court documents showed. DesJarlais, now 50, said he was convinced the woman was lying and he was pushing her to admit it.
For DesJarlais, ranked in May as one of the top 10 "most vulnerable" House incumbents by the nonpartisan Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, this is all in the past, well before his first 2010 race for Congress.
"It certainly has been a distraction, but I think now -- after being married to [second wife] Amy for 12 years -- I think people are seeing that I have a good family," DesJarlais said.
And, he added, "the way we've conducted ourselves in Washington, the job we've done, has seemed to resonate with our constituents."
Tracy, a former teacher, coach, referee and insurance agency owner, first alluded to the abortion issue in his January 2013 campaign kickoff. But since then Tracy, first elected to the state Senate in 2004 and with an unsuccessful 2010 6th Congressional District race under his belt, has largely soft-pedaled it. Changing district lines have moved Tracy into the 4th District.
In his first television ads Tracy touted his "integrity" and asserted "too many congressmen are short on integrity and that's how our nation got in this mess."
But he recently addressed the issue head-on in several direct-mail pieces sent to GOP voters in the 16-county district, which includes part of Bradley as well as Rhea, Marion and Sequatchie counties.
The Shelbyville lawmaker questioned DesJarlais' effectiveness and charged that the congressman has "no moral ground to stand on," given his personal history on abortion, to "stand up to" President Barack Obama and "liberal Democrats."
DesJarlais' campaign charged that Tracy was in a "panic" over the race and accused him of "gutter politics."
Countered Tracy in an interview: "It's about effectiveness. He cannot be effective. I can. I've been effective as a state senator. I'll be effective as a congressman."
Meanwhile, DesJarlais in his own direct mail and a television ad is attacking Tracy as a legislator who supported Common Core education standards and was ready to support a state gas tax.
DesJarlais, who was recently diagnosed with early stage cancer in his neck, said that while he and Tracy are much the same in their opposition to Obama and some issues, "he has a legislative history. ... there's some votes he's cast that are different from mine."
Tracy said he never voted for Common Core. And he said he never brought up a bill that was amended by a House sponsor to peg state gas taxes to the rate of inflation. On the campaign trail, he boasts of Tennessee Republicans cutting taxes while Washington gets little done.
DesJarlais serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and has been a frequent critic of Obama and the president's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
The nonpartisan National Journal, another D.C.-based publication, earlier this year ranked DesJarlais as the fourth most conservative congressman of the 435-member House.
That's the sort of record, along with DesJarlais' refusal to support federal budget deals that he says don't cut spending sufficiently, that has helped keep Maury County Tea Party member Lyle Worsham in DesJarlais' corner.
"I think it's water under the bridge, a mistake he made just like the mistake I made, and I'm sure you've made a few at some point in time," Worsham said of the abortions and related issues.
Noting that portions of the matter were "dragged" out in DesJarlais' 2010 and 2012 campaigns with Democrats, Worsham said, "I just don't think it's a winning issue for his opponent."
For most of the past 18 months, one of DesJarlais' problems has been his fundraising. The bottom has dropped out, at least in comparison with Tracy's ability to raise money.
As of June 30, DesJarlais had raised $405,000 for the cycle, compared to nearly $1.4 million for Tracy, who has the support of most of his state Senate GOP colleagues. The congressman had $184,505 left on June 30 while Tracy had $705,000 on hand. But DesJarlais' campaign says money is now rolling in.
Tracy has also been racking up endorsements. Earlier this year, the conservative pro-life Concerned Women of America endorsed him. CatholicVote.org is running an ad in support of Tracy on its website, according to a reported posted Friday on the Federal Election Commission website.
But DesJarlais, who was fined $500 by the State Board of Medical Examiners over two affairs revealed after the 2012 election, isn't being supported by some of his fellow physicians in this campaign.
Dr. Lebron Lackey , a Bradley County radiologist who practices in Rhea County, said he supports Tracy, calling him an "old-fashioned conservative with old-fashioned values."
"I consider [Desjarlais] an embarrassment to our profession and an embarrassment to our district," said Lackey, adding news media will make him a "sideshow" whenever the congressman speaks on health care.
"We can't get him off the national stage too soon," Lackey said.
Both candidates say their internal polling shows them ahead. No news media or other independent organization has done any polling in the race.
David Wasserman, who follows House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that while "you never count an incumbent out ... Tracy ought to have the advantage in this race. He has far more money, [and] he has a base in the western end of the district that's more populous than DesJarlais' base."
Moreover, Wasserman said, "DesJarlais really can't afford to throw any stones at Tracy because that's a battle he can't win."
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said he wasn't much impressed by Tracy's initial television ad.
"People don't even know from that ad he's even running against DesJarlais," Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer anticipates a low turnout in the GOP primary and noted that if Tracy is "just depending on anti-DesJarlais folks voting for him it may be closer than you think. My sense is that DesJarlais may have some intense supporters, and the question is whether Tracy has intense supporters."
In late 2012, after a fierce campaign with Democrat Eric Stewart, DesJarlais said in an interview with conservative radio talk host Ralph Bristol, "I've certainly made mistakes -- I admit to those."
He later added, "I tell you, I wouldn't wish this on anybody to have the darkest secrets of your life paraded out in the media."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or email@example.com.
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, ...