MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Charging that U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., has "betrayed and deceived" 4th Congressional District voters about his past, fellow Republican Jim Tracy on Wednesday formally launched his campaign to unseat the embattled Jasper physician in the August 2014 GOP primary.
"I promise that I will never embarrass you with my personal conduct or compromise on my conservative principles," Tracy, a state senator from Shelbyville, told supporters in announcing his bid. "I'm a conservative in word and deed. I'm 100 percent pro-life."
The 56-year-old insurance agency owner and one-time college basketball referee told some 80 to 100 supporters gathered at a Murfreesboro pharmacy that "America's problems are too great to have our leaders preoccupied with their own personal scandals."
DesJarlais, 48, won re-election to the House over Democrat Eric Stewart in November despite revelations he had sex with at least two patients and pressured one to seek an abortion. The congressman has rejected calls for his resignation and has said he intends to run for a third term in 2014.
Asked about Tracy's criticisms, DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said in a statement that "clearly, the majority of 4th District residents, including state Senator Tracy, who voted to send Congressman DesJarlais back to Congress feel that he is an effective voice."
Jameson said "right now Congressman DesJarlais is focused on the job he was elected to do by residents of the 4th District: Ending deficit spending, repealing ObamaCare and returning our government to its proper constitutional role."
In comments to reporters earlier in the day, Tracy, a Church of Christ deacon who was re-elected last fall to a third four-year Senate term, share some stances such as deficit reduction and tax cuts. But saying that "character counts," he questioned DesJarlais' effectiveness, trustworthiness and ability to lead, adding "people are not going to listen to you if you don't have good character."
He acknowledged voting for DesJarlais over Stewart last fall, but he said many of the sordid details of the physician's actions during the late 1990s and 2000 "hadn't come out yet." Tracy said that along with his desire to see Republican House Speaker John Boehner re-elected as speaker prompted his vote for DesJarlais.
"Scott DesJarlais has betrayed and deceived his constituents," Tracy said. "America's problems are too great to have our leaders preoccupied with their own personal scandals."
During his first election in 2010, DesJarlais was hit with allegations from his 2001 divorce that he had displayed erratic behavior and intimidated his then wife with a gun. He dismissed the charges as false.
In his 2012 re-election, the congressman was rocked by the emergence of a partial transcript of a 2000 conversation he had with a patient with whom he had had sex. In it, he urged her to get an abortion.
DesJarlais acknowledged the incident occurred but maintained he had not recorded it and had no idea who did. He also said the woman was not pregnant and there was no abortion.
A week after his successful re-election, a Hamilton County judge released the entire transcript from the divorce trial in response to a Tennessee Democratic Party motion. In it, DesJarlais acknowledged the gun incidents with his then wife as well supporting her in getting two abortions.
On yet another front, DesJarlais acknowledged under oath that he was involved in taping the conversation with the patient who said she was pregnant, the trial transcript revealed. The woman testified that she had been pregnant but refused to answer questions about whether she underwent an abortion.
DesJarlais said at the time and continues to say he knew as a physician she wasn't pregnant.
During his 2012 victory over Stewart, DesJarlais virtually exhausted his campaign war chest and most high-profile Republicans have publicly shunned him.
Tracy is no stranger to congressional campaigning. He ran for the 6th Congressional District Republican nomination, coming in a close third in a three-person race separated by just 566 votes.
Last year, legislative Republicans redrew congressional district lines and place Tracy's home county of Bedford as well as Rutherford County in the 4th District. That was done in anticipation that Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro would challenge DesJarlais in 2012. But Ketron opted not to run.
He was among state legislators joining Tracy at his campaign announcement.
"I just feel like Jim represents my values, and I think he'll do a good job," Ketron said.
Still, things could get complicated in the 4th District GOP primary. State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lacassas, last month announced he had formed an exploratory committee to test the waters for a bid. State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, is eyeing the race, too.
Meanwhile, Tracy has enlisted an army of top GOP figures and fundraisers for his bid.
His campaign leadership team includes includes former Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn and the top GOP leadership of the state Senate: Lt. Gov Ron Ramsey, state Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson of Hixson, Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and Ketron.
Recently elected state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is on the team as well.