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Embattled GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais faces primary struggle in central Tennessee

State Senator Jim Tracy, DesJarlais’s challenger, has outraised the incumbent more than 4-to-1

By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics editor

tennessee mugMURFREESBORO, Tennessee (CFP) — The Republican primary battle in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District is shaping up to be one of the most contentious of the 2014 cycle, with incumbent Rep. Scott DesJarlais trying to hold his seat amidst an avalanche of negative personal publicity.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais

DesJarlais, 49, first elected in the GOP landslide of 2010, is facing State Senator Jim Tracy, 57, of Shelbyville, who is telling anybody who will listen that voters in the district “deserve a strong and effective voice in Congress, which right now they do not have.”

Tracy’s not-so-veiled reference is to revelations from the case file from DesJarilais’s bitter 2001 divorce from his first wife. In it, the congressman admitted having a string of extra-martial affairs and — perhaps even more damaging for an avowed right-to-life lawmaker — encouraging his then-wife to have two abortions.

DesJarlais (pronounced Dez-yar-lay), a medical doctor, also admitted having relationships with two female patients, which prompted the Tennessee State Board of Medical Examiners to reprimand him for unprofessional conduct and fine him $500.

Details about DesJarlais’s divorce became an issue in his contentious 2012 re-election campaign, which he won with just 56 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican district. However, DesJarlais successfully fought to prevent release of the full transcript of the case file until after the election.

After the transcript contradicted some of DesJarlais’s previous explanations about his behavior, his political support began to crumble. Two months later, Tracy jumped in to run against him.

To combat the damage, DesJarlais has been campaigning around the district, which includes 15 counties in central Tennessee, with his second wife, Susan, by his side. His campaign Web site also features a picture of him with his wife and three children.

DesJarlais has tried to deflect questions about his past by noting that his messy divorce happened nearly 13 years ago, long before he got involved in politics. However, fundraising figures show how much damage has been done.

State Senator Jim Tracy

State Senator Jim Tracy

During the first nine months of 2013, Federal Election Commission reports show that DesJarlais raised about $273,000, with $182,000 in cash on hand. By contrast, Tracy has raised nearly $922,000, with $768,000 on hand.

During the 2012 election cycle, DesJarlais raised $1.26 million.

A number of prominent conversative activist groups have lined up behind Tracy, including the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, the Concerned Women for America’s political action committee and the Tea Party Leadership Fund.

However, DesJairlais has held on to some conservative support. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California has given him $2,500, and the National Rifle Association tossed in another $1,000.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who is leading a number of congressional investigations into the Obama administration, appeared at a DesJarlais fundraiser back in March.

In November, DesJarlais announced that he would introduce legislation to impeach Attorney General Eric Holder, a stance that should play well in his district.

The congressman also defended remarks he made during a town hall meeting in Murfreesboro in August when an 11-year-old girl asked what she could do to help her father, an undocumented immigrant, stay in the country with her.

“We have laws, and we need to follow those, too,” DesJarlais responded, to cheers from the crowd. After he came under attack from liberal groups, he put a YouTube video of the exchange on his Web site, accompanied with a fundraising pitch.

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