NASHVILLE - Challenger Jim Tracy has dropped the political "A" bomb - as in abortion - in his effort to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the 4th Congressional District's Republican primary on Aug. 7.
In a direct mail piece last week, the Shelbyville state senator's campaign questions DesJarlais' effectiveness and charges he has "no moral ground to stand on," given his personal history, to "stand up to" President Barack Obama and "liberal Democrats."
The mailer refers to revelations during and after the 2012 campaign that DesJarlais, a South Pittsburg physician who calls himself strongly pro-life, advocated for his ex-wife and a patient with whom he'd had an affair to have abortions.
"Stand up to Obama and a Liberal Washington?" the direct mail piece asks. "Obama's liberal agenda is destroying America. We need strong, conservative leadership to defend our values. But Scott DesJarlais doesn't have the moral ground to stand on."
The front of the mailer depicts wooden toy letter blocks spelling "baby," and goes on to say, "Abortions. Affairs. Abuse of Power. We can't trust DesJarlais to Fight for Our Values."
DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson called the piece "just the sort of disgusting gutter politics we'd expected from [U.S. House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and her allies in Washington."
"It's terribly disappointing that Sen. Tracy chose to go this route rather than have a meaningful discussion on the issues," Jameson said. "He's chosen to engage in these same sort of gutter politics that Tennesseans have rejected in the last two elections."
The mailer appears to have gone out prior to DesJarlais' announcement Friday that he has been diagnosed with cancer in his neck and will undergo chemotherapy and radiation starting this week. The congressman said it was caught early and doctors believe he has a 90 percent chance of recovery.
Tracy launched a similar attack on his campaign website, www.tracyfortn.com/truth-about-desjarlais: "DesJarlais says he shares our Conservative values but ... He supported two abortions prior to the marriage of his wife, [g]ot fines for ethics violations during his time as a physician, [a]nd that isn't even half of the story!"
In records from his 2000 divorce, DesJarlais acknowledged going along with his then-wife's decision to obtain two abortions. Last year, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners voted 8-0 to reprimand DesJarlais and fined him $500 for sexual relationships with two patients in 2000.
Following his 2012 re-election, DesJarlais said in a radio interview that all this occurred more than a decade earlier, before his successful re-marriage. He is not that same person, the congressman said.
"I know God's forgiven me. ... I simply ask my fellow Christians and constituents to consider doing the same for me," he said.
Tracy told the Times Free Press on Thursday during a campaign stop in Cleveland, Tenn., said the issue comes down to who effective representation for the 4th District.
"It gives people a choice between me and him. Who do the people think would be the most effective? And in being the most effective, you take everything into consideration," Tracy said.
"I definitely think it's legitimate," he added.
When he announced in January 2013 that he try to stop DesJarlais's bid for a third term, Tracy charged the incumbent had "betrayed and deceived" voters about his past.
He said, "I promise that I will never embarrass you with my personal conduct or compromise on my conservative principles."
But until now, Tracy has campaigned on his conservative credentials and used softer terms like "integrity" in an ad without referencing the scandals.
With early voting starting Friday, there's speculation the approach hasn't worked as well as the Tracy campaign had hoped. Both sides claim their polling puts them ahead.
A number of tea party groups continue to support DesJarlais. Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said last week that "we need more conservatives who will stick to their principles and we need more Congressmen like Scott Desjarlais."
Tracy, meanwhile, has the support of most of his Senate Republican colleagues and has raised far more money than the incumbent. Tracy has been up on television while DesJarlais has not. His endorsements include groups like Concerned Women Political Action Committee.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550.