NASHVILLE — It's another election year and another scorched-earth campaign in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District Republican primary between U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and challenger Grant Starrett.
This year's contest pits DesJarlais, 52, a South Pittsburg physician who barely survived his 2014 Republican primary amid revelations from his messy 2001 divorce, against Starrett, a wealthy 28-year-old attorney and conservative activist who moved last year to Murfreesboro, the largely rural district's largest city.
The sprawling 16-county district includes part of Bradley County and all of Meigs, Rhea, Marion, Grundy and Bledsoe counties but excludes Hamilton County, which is in the 3rd Congressional District.
Starrett is a California native who moved to Tennessee in 2009 to attend Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville and who has worked for arch-conservative U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
He's run to the right of DesJarlais, lambasting the three-term incumbent on votes dealing with military spending and food stamps and accusing the incumbent of enabling Muslim terrorists on a 2015 spending bill vote.
And he's launched a blitz of media and direct mail ads charging DesJarlais has been "silent" on abortion and refuses to define when life begins.
"You've been betrayed by Scott DesJarlais," is the slogan in many of his attacks.
However, Kent Syler, an assistant professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, thinks DesJarlais may have built up enough support in his district to survive the onslaught.
"Starrett's running a spirited campaign," Syler said. But DesJarlais has "in six years had six races and beaten cancer," he added.
"You know, until someone can prove different, you got to bet on him. Starrett is running a campaign to get to the right of DesJarlais, and I just don't know that there's any room there."
The congressman, who in 2014 was ranked as the House's fourth most conservative member by The National Journal, says Starrett's campaign is distorting his votes.
"I guess when you're a 28-year-old who doesn't live, work or has never voted in the district, I guess you try whatever campaign strategy you think might get traction," DesJarlais said in a recent interview.
DesJarlais charges that Starrett is using his parents' money to "buy" a rural Tennessee congressional seat. He began airing an ad this month that parodied the old TV show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." It labeled Starrett as "Mr. California" and a "California trust-fund millionaire" who is using "inherited fortune and out-of-state cash to join the club in Washington."
As of July 18, Starrett had loaned or given his campaign just shy of $700,000 of nearly $1.5 million raised in this election cycle, according to his Federal Election Commission pre-primary filing Saturday. Most of his contributions come from outside the district.
The federal figures show Starrett had outspent DesJarlais by $918,154 to $338,440 as of July 15.
On the other hand, DesJarlais has been embraced this year by some elected Republican officials in the 4th District.
That's a change from 2014, when DesJarlais was fighting for his political survival against state Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville.
The challenger hammered the pro-life congressman over court records from his 2001 divorce. They showed he'd urged a former patient with whom he'd had an affair to get an abortion, and went along with his ex-wife's two abortions.
DesJarlais told voters he'd found a new religious faith in his second marriage, but Tracy pounded the issue mercilessly in the 2014 primary, and DesJarlais squeaked by with just 38 votes.
Starrett hasn't hit directly on DesJarlais' personal issues, saying he doesn't wish to delve into DesJarlais' past. But he continually attacks him on abortion-related matters. That includes DesJarlais staying silent when House members grilled Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in 2015 over the alleged sale of aborted fetal tissue.
DesJarlais' office said he gave his time to a female colleague who he believed would be more effective confronting Richards. He has a 100 percent rating by National Right to Life, but Tennessee Right to Life hasn't endorsed him.
However, a Starrett mailer accused the congressman of having "refused" to hold Planned Parenthood "accountable" and "silent on life," and featured a picture of DesJarlais with tape over his mouth. Beside him is a photo of a doctored "Planned Parenthood" cooler marked "Dead Baby Parts $500."
DesJarlais's campaign said constituents are "repulsed" by the "reprehensible" mailer.
State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, a public relations and conference manager at the Cleveland-headquartered Church of God and an ordained minister, backed Tracy two years ago. He now supports DesJarlais.
"I do think it's behind him," Brooks said of the congressman's turbulent past.
Brooks said he thanks God personally every day for his grace, which "covers a multitude of sins."
"And I have personally, personally, been with Scott DesJarlais when he said to me, 'Kevin, that was a different life and a different wife and God forgave me. And I ask for your forgiveness, too, Kevin.' And I gave it to him."
But two other Bradley County Republicans, former county commissioner Ed Elkins and his wife, Marilyn, are supporting Starrett.
"Grant is a true conservative, and when we say true conservative we mean true conservative," Elkins said in video posted on Starrett's Facebook page. "Grant is pro-life, and he understands the reality of what pro-life means. Grant is a Christian."
Also running in the GOP primary are Yomi "Fapas" Fapusi and Erran Presley, both of Murfreesboro. The lone Democrat on the ballot is Steve Reynolds of Murfreesboro.
Early voting continues through July 30 and Election Day is Aug. 4.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.