Politics & Policy

This Thursday, Tennessee Voters Have a Chance to Oust a Disaster of a Congressman

Rep. Scott DeJarlais in Washington, March 21, 2016. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
He has redefined ‘sordid.’ The obvious choice to replace him is conservative Grant Starrett.

Tennessee’s fourth congressional district is a big, sprawling region that dominates the south-central portion of the state. Reaching as far north as Smyrna (near Nashville), it encompasses Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, parts of Columbia, and the mountainous regions near Chattanooga. It’s rural, it’s beautiful, it’s religious, and it’s extremely conservative.

In other words, it just might be one of the safest Republican seats in the South. It’s the perfect home for a principled conservative, someone who can use a secure seat to build a base of power and influence in Washington — perfect for someone who can actually lead. Instead, district voters are represented by arguably the worst man in Congress, Scott DesJarlais.

How bad is DesJarlais? In the run-up to the 2010 election, when he unseated conservative Democrat Lincoln Davis, voters learned that he’d had a messy divorce, but it wasn’t until the weeks and days immediately before and after his 2012 reelection that they learned the full extent of his past wrongdoing. His past — a past he worked hard to conceal from the public — redefined “sordid.”

He had a whopping six affairs on his ex-wife and supported her decision to get two abortions before their marriage. A doctor, he had affairs with two patients and prescribed one of them drugs. The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners fined and admonished DesJarlais for this misconduct. He actually taped himself pressuring one of his mistresses to get an abortion, and then — when word of the tape leaked — lied to his constituents, claiming that the conversation “was recorded without [his] knowledge.”

In office, DesJarlais has combined opportunism with ineffectiveness.

In office, DesJarlais has combined opportunism with ineffectiveness. His scandal-tarred past makes him skittish on pro-life issues — at a recent House hearing he passed the microphone rather than bother to question Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards — and he goes where the political wind blows. When the Tea Party was fashionable, he proclaimed himself one of the most conservative members of Congress. Earlier this year, however, he was one of the first congressmen on the Trump train. Conservative? Trumpulist? He’s what he needs to be to survive.

And survive he does. Last cycle he squeaked past a primary challenge from Tennessee state senator Jim Tracey by a mere 38 votes, winning 44.9 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race. This cycle, lawyer Grant Starrett is challenging DesJarlais. I know Starrett. I met him when he worked with Mitt Romney in 2012 and again when he was a conservative activist at Vanderbilt Law School. He’s a conservative, he’s intelligent, he has far more political experience than most people twice his age, and — critically — he’s a person of energy and integrity. Conservatives from Mark Levin to Erick Erickson to National Reviews own Ramesh Ponnuru have lined up to argue that Starrett would be vast improvement over DesJarlais.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=CJMlUzUvBSk

Starrett, however, is young, and he’s not from Tennessee (he grew up in California). DesJarlais has done his best to paint him as out of touch — a rich kid trying to buy a congressional seat. Starrett, for his part, has responded by knocking on thousands of doors (he claims his team has knocked on more than 100,000 doors in the district), meeting families in countless “house parties,” and focusing the nation’s “moral, fiscal, and constitutional crisis.”

This Thursday, voters go to the polls in the primary election that will almost certainly decide who holds the seat. Barring an extraordinary turn of events, the Democratic nominee is likely to lose to either DesJarlais or Starrett by 20 points. So voters have, in theory, the luxury of choosing the best available Republican to represent their interests, not the most electable.

There are tens of thousands of Tennesseans who could travel to Washington and vote conservative — men and women who haven’t had multiple affairs, pressed women into having abortions, or committed medical-ethics violations. DesJarlais is not the district’s best representative. He’s not even a decent representative. He adds nothing to the district except trouble. He’s an object of scorn and mockery from coast to coast.

#related#Moreover, there is nothing special about DesJarlais that makes him uniquely qualified to hold the seat in spite of his multiple grievous sins. He’s not a war hero. He’s not a spectacular businessman. He’s just an ambitious politician who is taking advantage of Americans’ increasing callousness to scandal and immunity to shame. In other words, DesJarlais owes a great debt to Bill and Hillary Clinton for his seat.

Inertia and incumbency are not sufficient reasons to keep a man in Congress. My friends and neighbors (the line for the district begins exactly one mile south of my house) deserve to be represented by a politician with the potential to lead, a person who can, free from the cloud of hypocrisy, face down the president of Planned Parenthood. The voters can do better. They have a better choice. Cleaning Scott DesJarlais out of Congress would be an act of public hygiene. On August 4, please vote, and please send Mr. Starrett to Washington.

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