Past obstacles, attacks no match for Rep. Scott DesJarlais

Authored By James Harrison

The revelations of details about Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ past transformed him into a punching bag for his Democratic opponents one month before his first bid for re-election in the 4th District.

But despite taking hit after hit regarding sexual relationships he engaged in with at least two women who were his patients 12 years ago, DesJarlais weathered the storm-securing a second term in Congress by a margin of nearly 12 percent over his Democratic challenger, Eric Stewart. 

In the 23 days DesJarlais found himself embroiled in scandal, multiple calls were made for his resignation. 

The congressman became the target of opposition from groups outside the district when a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC poured $280,000 into an ad campaign attempting to sway voters from supporting him.

Even on the Monday before the election, the Tennessee Democratic Party had DesJarlais holed up in a Hamilton County court as they sought a 600-page transcript detailing the court proceedings from a divorce finalized in 2001.

Although relatively quiet during October and early November, the congressman asked his constituents to judge him based upon the quality of a 10-year marriage to his second wife, along with his record in Congress.

And, on Tuesday night, DesJarlais would declare victory by a clear and definitive margin over his opponent.

“For the second election in a row, my opponents and the liberal media have tried to ignore the problems facing our nation and instead concentrate solely on a 14-year-old divorce,” the congressman said in a statement released the following morning. “Last night’s election results clearly show that Tennesseans want leaders in Washington who are focused on providing solutions that will ensure a brighter future for our country.”

Multiple factors played a role in granting the congressman a second win.

DesJarlais, who held a clear lead over Stewart in campaign contributions, was able to heavily outspend his opponent in the months leading up to Nov. 6. And with less than a month to attack the congressman over events in his previous life, Stewart may have not had enough time to solidify efforts to disqualify DesJarlais based on his past.

But another factor that may have ensured a DesJarlais victory may have been the letter by his name on the ballot.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, said that voters intent on casting a vote against the president and in favor of Republicans-a pattern that consistently and heavily played out across the state-may have been more than enough to secure DesJarlais victory, despite his troubles.

“People are so strongly locked into their preferences starting at the top of the ticket that they might not have been interested in making a change,” Oppenheimer said. “Given that the district had a Republican lean, my sense is that people felt comfortable voting for DesJarlais, and it didn’t really matter what he had done yesterday or 10 years ago.”

Oppenheimer also mentioned that a blitz in attack advertising against the congressman may not have had the desired impact by its sponsors because of the nature of media markets surrounding the 4th District. 

“Nashville is an expensive area to advertise in,” he said. “If you advertise there, you’re really hitting voters in five districts. And DesJarlais was running his ads as well.”

The group behind the $280,000 ad buy-House Majority PAC-exists to help boost Democratic candidates into office. Of the $31 million the PAC put toward congressional races across the country this cycle, only 44 percent of the races yielded winning candidates, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report.

Attempts by to reach a spokesman for House Majority PAC were not successful.

Efforts by Tennessee Democrats to hinder DesJarlais also came up short. 

Three days after they were told they would have to wait for a transcript of DesJarlais’ decade-old divorce proceedings to be transcribed by a Marion County court clerk, attorneys for the Tennessee Democratic Party had still not acquired the transcript they had hoped to use against the congressman the day before the election.

On Thursday, it was unclear what the status of the party’s attempts to obtain the court documents had become. 

Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party, said in a brief email that the party had not given up on obtaining the documents.

“We will get the transcript,” he said. 

DesJarlais will return to a Congress similar in makeup to the one he found as a freshman. In his victory statement, the congressman added that he planned on continuing to fight for campaign promises he made during his initial bid for office two years ago.

“When I first ran for Congress, I promised I would go to Washington and fight to reduce the size of government, end the deficit spending and repeal Obamacare,” he said. “I believe that I have kept those promises, and I look forward to using this term to build upon the many successes already achieved by House Republicans.”

Potential troubles regarding the congressman’s past may not be completely over, however.

DesJarlais, a physician from Jasper, was also hit with a formal complaint from a D.C.-based ethics group, which asked the Tennessee Department of Health to investigate any relationships he engaged in with women who were his patients.

The status of the complaint is unknown.

The congressman will return to Washington next week.