More than one-quarter of Tennessee's 4th Congressional District depends on the government for groceries, but its congressman said he's likely to slash the federal program that provides them.
"Folks on any entitlement programs, we're going to have to take a look at it," said U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican physician who lives in South Pittsburg, Tenn. "If it hurts me politically, then I guess it hurts me politically."
Throughout a 20-minute interview in Tracy City, Tenn., last week, DesJarlais denied having worries about the next election 19 months away, claiming voters sent him to Washington to "get government out of our lives."
Records show more residents in the 4th District are registered for food stamps than voted for DesJarlais when he ousted four-term Democratic congressman Lincoln Davis in November.
In February, more than 150,000 4th District residents were signed up for food stamps, according to records from the state Department of Human Services. DesJarlais received 103,969 votes in the general election.
DesJarlais' district is Tennessee's largest geographically, sweeping across 24 mostly rural counties from Southeast Tennessee to a point south of Nashville. Three of its counties are among the state's 10 worst for unemployment, including Scott County at 23.2 percent.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said the numbers indicate a "contradiction of who DesJarlais is and the constituency he represents."
"Republicans talk about government as this monster strangling the American economy," Forrester said. "Now you have a congressman who's talking about stripping basic things people in his district need to survive."
Despite his district's economic makeup, DesJarlais has identified with a conservative bloc of young, tea party-backed legislators intent on cutting back entitlement programs - Social Security and Medicare among them.
"How much does he really know about his district?" asked Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer. "You get one group of people who get you elected, but there's another part of your constituency that maybe didn't vote for you. And you may have to worry about them in the long run."
But the congressman said his votes fall in line with a clear message sent by people back home. He acknowledged the poverty in the 4th District, but he's ready to trim programs that are "very personal to people" for "the good of the whole."
"Whether the people judge me in a poor light politically because of what I don't do for the district will be up to them," he said.
During the campaign season, DesJarlais touted a tea party endorsement and Sarah Palin's political action committee donated $5,000 to his campaign, finance records show. Last August, he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he "won't be hamstrung by the Democrats or the Republicans."
Through 193 House floor votes since he arrived in Congress, DesJarlais has voted with Republicans 98 percent of the time, according to records maintained by the Washington Post.
"I don't feel I've compromised my conservative principles at all to this point," he said.