Tracy weighs another run at DesJarlais

Jim Tracy on left, Scott DesJarlais on right

NASHVILLE -- State Sen. Jim Tracy says he is weighing another challenge to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the 4th Congressional District's GOP primary next year after his heart-stopping 38-vote loss to the South Pittsburg physician in 2014.

"I've thought about it and I've had a lot of folks contact me in the district over the last few months," the Shelbyville senator said in an interview. "I'm going to look at it."

Noting he is in the midst of a "busy" legislative session, Tracy said he's in no hurry to make an immediate decision. "We're going to evaluate it, talk to my family. You know, I made a lot of inroads last year running, built a pretty good base. Got a lot of people to help me. Came within 38 votes."

The senator said he'd been invited to Saturday's Lincoln Day Dinner hosted by the Bradley County Republican Party and planned to attend. Much of Bradley is in the sprawling, largely rural 4th District, which takes in all or parts of 15 counties and stretches from Bradley in the east to Rutherford County in the west. Tracy won Bradley handily in 2014.

The 2014 primary battle drew national attention as Tracy sought to oust the scandal-plagued DesJarlais, considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans nationwide at the time.

That was the result of 2012 revelations that abortion opponent DesJarlais had had extramarital affairs with patients and co-workers, urging one patient to get an abortion and going along with his former wife's decision to have two abortions.

DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson said in a statement Friday that "with a close election and health issues behind him, the congressman feels he is in the strongest position yet to champion conservative principles and Tennessee values in Washington."

DesJarlais was treated during and after the campaign for lymphoma, a cancer.

"As a result of his bold conservative leadership in Congress, Congressman DesJarlais continues to receive widespread support from throughout the district," Jameson added.

Also said to be weighing a 4th District challenge is Grant Starrett, a 27-year-old Nashville-area attorney who worked in Republican Mitt Romney's two presidential campaigns.

Starrett also led a group that tried unsuccessfully to oust three Democratic justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court last August. While he's been making the rounds in Washington, he's not very well known, especially in the 4th District.

Last year DesJarlais relied on staunch tea party support. He stressed his opposition to President Barack Obama on virtually everything and emphasized that his life has turned around since his 2001 divorce, with a happy second marriage and a new-found religious faith.

He asked voters to judge him not by his past but by what he is today and his conservative voting record.

Tracy raised more than $1 million and outspent DesJarlais by about 2-to-1. Now Tracy, chairman of the Senate Transportation, plans to sound out financial supporters. His goal would be to again raise $1 million.

Though voters generally don't approve of Congress, Tracy said, Tennessee voters have a much higher opinion of the Republican-dominated General Assembly in Nashville.

"I think people are still very frustrated with what's going on in Congress. [They're] looking at a chance of getting things done in Washington," Tracy said. "We've done that in Tennessee."

He said he'd like to bring "Tennessee values to Washington." That includes balancing budgets and "not running up debt." And the 4th District deserves "strong conservative leadership" with "someone who can lead and put this country on the right path," he added.

He said his strategy and message would "probably be different," although he noted, "integrity's still important. No question about that."

Tracy initially tiptoed around the affairs and abortions, waiting until the end of the campaign to hit the issue hard. But DesJarlais' cancer diagnosis drew some sympathy.

And some voters said in interviews they didn't like Tracy's attacks. Moreover, DesJarlais portrayed Tracy as more moderate than he was.

GOP strategists later said Tracy erred by relying to much on the scandal and not doing a better job defining himself and his own conservative views. Some also faulted him for not turning out voters successfully in some areas.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who followed last year's race, said a crowded primary would complicate the 2016 race.

"My sense is whoever's going to beat DesJarlais will have to get him one on one. You can't afford to have more than one in the field," Oppenheimer said. With no statewide races in 2016, GOP primary turnout will be low, he said.

Moreover, DesJarlais in 2016 is "two years longer from the scandal that plagues his political career." And, he asked, is Tracy stronger than he was in 2014?

"If you couldn't get DesJarlais in 2014, what makes you think you're going to get him in 2016?"

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.