CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Against all odds, embattled Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) could be headed back to Congress next year.
The GOP physician looked like he would be booted from office in late 2012 after revelations that he had pushed his ex-wife to have two abortions and carried on affairs with patients, one of whom he urged to terminate a pregnancy.
The socially conservative congressman drew a strong primary opponent this year in state Sen. Jim Tracy (R), and many in the GOP privately say they are rooting for the challenger, because it would rid the party of another member of its “scandal caucus.”
But despite DesJarlais being seen as one of the cycle’s most endangered incumbents, more than a half-dozen strategists with deep Tennessee ties say the contest is far closer than expected ahead of the Aug. 7 primary.
DesJarlais has said the incidents are behind him. He’s remarried with children, and according to several sources has been reaching out to churches and faith communities to apologize for his actions and ask for forgiveness. In the solidly red district, he’s touting his conservative record during his four years in Congress.
The congressman has recently been spending less time on the campaign trail, however, after being diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis is good, but he’s undergoing aggressive treatments that have kept him out of the public eye.
Tracy has gone negative in the campaign’s final days, further underscoring that the race is much closer than once thought. His most recent ad reminds voters that DesJarlais was fined by the state medical board for relationships with patients and says he “no longer has credibility.”
A direct mail piece to voters went even further. “Stand up to Obama and a Liberal Washington?” it reads. “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.”
Some observers said that strategy could backfire.
“I think the cancer made it harder to attack [DesJarlais],” said one longtime Tennessee strategist. “The diagnosis came right about the time you’d expect [Tracy] to attack. ... I think DesJarlais’s conservative message and what is taken as an authentic apology and plea for forgiveness has kicked in.”
“Tracy turning so negative isn’t working the way he wanted it to work,” said another Tennessee Republican, who noted that many of the district’s rural voters “are hardcore for DesJarlais.”
Tracy hails from just outside Murfreesboro, the growing area that was added by redistricting after 2012. Early voting in his state Senate district, which takes in roughly half of the congressional district, has been particularly strong compared to 2010 numbers, giving his campaign confidence. But others note the rural vote could turn out late and deliver for DesJarlais, many of whom are skeptical of “city voters.”
The two-term incumbent isn’t exactly a pariah within the congressional delegation, despite the scandals that have endangered his political career. And while DesJarlais touts his independence from leadership, he's gotten donations from top members of the GOP caucus.
Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) The Freedom Project PAC gave him $5,000 last June, along with now-incoming Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) who chipped in $2,500 then too. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) kicked in $1,000 and hosted a fundraiser for the congressman, who sits on his committee, last week.
He’s also received checks from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and a handful of other members.
Tracy crushed the incumbent in the cash race. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who beat him in his first run in 2010, is hosting a fundraiser next week, and he’s also been endorsed by Concerned Women of America and the Family Research Council.
Drawing from many of his colleagues in the state Legislature, the challenger has pulled more than triple the money DesJarlais has, raising more than $1.4 million to the incumbent’s $447,000. Tracy has spent $1.15 million to DesJarlais’s $343,000.
However, in the pre-primary reporting period, from July 1-18, DesJarlais outraised Tracy $41,880 to $21,312, a sign of late momentum.
DesJarlais was unable to meet with The Hill during a visit to his district due to his cancer treatments. He’s missed congressional votes for the past two weeks, and was also unable to speak by phone.
His chief of staff, Richard Vaughn, says the congressman is still doing as much campaigning as he can when he feels up to it.
“He’s still out and about,” Vaughn said. “There are days where the treatments go on when it’s not possible.
“This race has always been competitive, though there have been efforts to make it sound like it’s a foregone conclusion,” DesJarlais’s top aide said.
Tracy is by far his biggest worry, though there are five other Republicans on the ballot who could dilute some of the vote in the plurality state.
Last Saturday evening, Tracy hosted a hot dog supper at a middle school in Cleveland, Tenn. His introduction by local leaders to a crowd of about 100 in the gymnasium wasn’t as forceful as his ads, but there were frequent not-so-veiled references to “values,” “morals,” “trust” and “integrity.”
As a country cover band played in the background, Dr. Lebron Lackey, a radiologist in neighboring Rhea County, said he would be going to the polls specifically to pull the lever against DesJarlais in favor of Tracy.
“He’s a potential embarrassment to the district and the profession,” Lackey told The Hill. “I don’t think we can get him off the national stage fast enough.”
Tracy argues the congressman’s personal failings have rendered him ineffective in Washington.
“I think they know about it,” he said of DesJarlais’s history. “They know that he’s not been very effective, they know he’s not very accessible, and I think they know about the past. They need someone they can trust, they can actually talk to and see.
“My gut feeling is we’re peaking at the right time,” Tracy says. “ I think people are craving someone from Tennessee, someone new.”
But those who have a pulse on the district are skeptical.
“I want to be able to tell you Jim Tracy will win this,” said one strategist who wants DesJarlais out. “But damn, I just don’t know.”
This story was updated at 11:45 a.m.