NASHVILLE — Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais is coming under fire from GOP challenger Grant Starrett's campaign after the congressman this week passed up an opportunity to grill Planned Parenthood's chief during an often contentious U.S. House hearing.
"Scott DesJarlais just showed the American people why Washington, D.C., is so hated and why he is unfit to be a congressman," Starrett campaign manager Tommy Schultz charged in a statement.
DesJarlais handed over his five minutes of question time to others. Schultz said when the 4th District incumbent "had the opportunity to directly question Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood about the sick and disturbing activities of her organization that were exposed in undercover videos — Scott DesJarlais simply passed the microphone. My jaw dropped."
Left unsaid by Starrett's campaign were DesJarlais' past controversies over abortion. Court records from his 2000 divorce, released in 2012, revealed the pro-life physician went along with his then-wife's decision to obtain two abortions and encouraged a former patient with whom he'd had an affair to undergo the procedure as well.
DesJarlais has long said his life changed dramatically when he remarried, that he has since found God and has voted "100 percent pro-life."
His spokesman, Robert Jameson, said Wednesday there was a simple reason why the South Pittsburg, Tenn., lawmaker yielded his time.
"There were several Republican women from other committees that asked for time to be yielded to them by members of the House Oversight Committee so they would have an opportunity to weigh in and participate in the hearing," Jameson said. "I think all those with pro-life values would understand the import of having [Republican] congressional women weigh in on this issue."
Jameson said Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, who doesn't serve on the panel, had asked DesJarlais for his time so she could question Richards.
Love's spokesman could not be contacted Wednesday afternoon and evening.
DesJarlais battled the abortion revelations again in 2014 during his GOP primary battle with state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, which the congressman won by just 38 votes.
Tracy raised the revelations when he first announced, questioning DesJarlais' effectiveness, and hit the issue hard in television and radio spots late in his campaign.
DesJarlais responded that he consistently has voted in support of the National Right to Life Committee's agenda while in Congress.
Starrett, meanwhile, has used what political experts call a follow-the-dots approach to DesJarlais' past.
Since allegations about Planned Parenthood "selling" parts of aborted fetuses first surfaced on videos — which Planned Parenthood says were doctored to put the organization in the worst possible light — Starrett has sent out a steady stream of social media messages denouncing the organization and calling for Congress to pull the organization's federal funding.
None of his messages, however, mention DesJarlais. Asked Wednesday why he thought DesJarlais had yielded his time, Schultz suggested a reporter ask the congressman.
Jameson said it's "important to keep in mind that congressman DesJarlais today actually voted against the continuing resolution that keeps Planned Parenthood funded and has said he will not support any continuing resolution that would."
"He's been out in front on this issue and I think it's laughable," he said of the Starrett campaign's criticisms.
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who follows the 4th District, said he doesn't see the Starrett campaign's apparent strategy on DesJarlais and abortion as terribly effective.
"It's not like DesJarlais is voting to fund Planned Parenthood," Oppenheimer said. "He let someone else rake them over the coals. Maybe it resonates, but with whom? The question is, can you keep adding them up and keep piling them up and that's hard to do. It'd be easier if [DesJarlais] went off the reservation and then people would go, 'Wow.'"
Jameson charged that Starrett's campaign is "floundering in Tennessee's 4th District on account of he simply has no tie to the area and is simply using his parents' money to run for the seat. The people know Congressman DesJarlais' position on pro-life issues. He's been a consistent advocate for the unborn."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.