By Hastings Wyman –
Tennessee’s 4th District (Columbia, etc.) hosted a hot GOP primary campaign in August, but the come-from-behind victory of second-term incumbent Scott DesJarlais (R) in an already heavily Republican district put the General Election campaign on most folks’ backburner. That the former physician could eke out a victory despite carrying baggage that included improper relations with patients and advising his then-wife and his paramour to have abortions (albeit 14 years ago) gave him an aura of political invincibility.
The hopes of the Democratic nominee, retired CPA Lenda Sherrell, were tied to DesJarlais winning renomination and being especially vulnerable on November 4. Although she has garnered a fistful of dollars (though she probably needs two fistfuls) and a pile of endorsements from prominent Democratic and liberal-leaning groups, the likelihood of a Democratic victory in this GOP district (Romney 65%) remains weak.
In the money chase, as of September 30, DesJarlais had raised a total of $519,000, much of it spent in his tough primary battle in which he was outspent, and had $103,000 on hand. Since he won the primary, a number of conservative PACs across the country have contributed modest sums – $5,000 and under – to his campaign. Sherrell had raised significantly more, with $801,000 raised and $235,000 on hand. She received contributions from a number of national and Tennessee groups, including Emily’s List.
In the heated primary in which DesJarlais was challenged by state Sen. Jim Tracy (R), the incumbent’s earlier personal history was discussed in direct mail, but only alluded to otherwise. When the Republican votes were counted, DesJarlais lost the suburban areas near Nashville, but won heavy margins in the rural counties nearer Chattanooga, and ultimately managed a slim victory – a 38-vote margin out of 77,504 votes cast. Tracy did not ask for a recount, commenting that it “would not be the right thing for the Republican Party and the conservative cause in Tennessee.” While he did not explicitly endorse DesJarlais, he made it clear that he is loyal to the GOP.
DesJarlais’s secret may not be so much his resiliency in the face of very heavy negatives, but his political conservatism, which sits well with most voters in his district. The National Journal ranked him the fourth most conservative in the House, and the Congressional Quarterly puts him in the top five in his opposition to President Obama’s proposals. His right-leaning credentials have given DesJarlais’s campaign an excellent platform from which to dub Sherrell “Liberal Lenda,” and he has TV spots hitting her for her volunteer work for Organizing for America, a group favoring Obama’s policies.
DesJarlais has also kept current on topical issues, and his medical background gave some credibility to his recent call for restricting travel to and from the West African countries where Ebola is prevalent.
A month before the primary, DesJarlais announced that he had early stage cancer in his neck, but expected a full recovery. The announcement has not seemed to affect his campaign or his political prospects.
Sherrell, 67, is a retired CPA who has been involved in education and business; she is married to a physician. She contends that the campaign is “about judgment, character, and honesty.” She espouses standard Democratic fare: She would increase the federal minimum wage and she opposes raising the retirement age for Social Security. But, in an interview with Chattanooga reporter Andy Sher, she also said she would like to take a pen to the federal budget, a nod to the district’s conservatism.
She has also stressed women’s issues, on the theory – probably valid – that given DesJarlais’s history and her gender, women voters are a good target group for her appeals. She has criticized DesJarlais for voting against the Violence Against Women Act, and for opposing paycheck fairness.
But Sherrell has not shied away from hitting DesJarlais on his personal history. “When Scott DesJarlais’s wife said under oath he abused her, he asked for forgiveness… When Congressman DesJarlais had the opportunity to protect victims of domestic violence, he voted ‘no.’ That we can’t forget.”
Sherrell was endorsed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which is widely read in the district. The editorial pulled no punches, calling DesJarlais “a tea party-leaning Republican who ran on a pro-life ticket but was found to have encouraged both former wife and a mistress to have abortions.” Sherrell has also been endorsed by at least nine unions.
Says a longtime observer of Tennessee politics, “Theoretically, if Democrats turn out for [Sherrell] and some Republicans vote for her, she could win.” He adds that Democrats might have had a better chance “if they had a more conservative Democrat, or if she had a lot of money. I really doubt that she can get anywhere. It’s a real long shot.”
Despite the parry-and-thrust of this volatile campaign, there’s little to suggest other than a victory for incumbent DesJarlais. But don’t be shocked if, as in the Republican Primary, the outcome is closer than expected. Likely Republican.