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WASHINGTON — State Rep. Joe Carr announced Tuesday that veteran political strategist Chip Saltsman is joining his 4th District bid to unseat Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais.
“Chip has absolutely the best performance pedigree in the state of Tennessee,” Carr, R-Lascassas, said in an interview. “It’s his ability to win.”
State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, also is challenging DesJarlais. Saltsman’s entry into an already volatile scrum invites several intriguing storylines 15 months before the August 2014 primary.
Carr and Tracy separately have questioned DesJarlais’ effectiveness after it was revealed the anti-abortion incumbent and physician slept with two patients and attempted to persuade one to get an abortion.
Known as a gritty campaign operative, Saltsman, 45, has an opposition researcher’s reputation. But in an interview Monday, Carr said DesJarlais’ past is something neither he nor Saltsman would be digging into.
“I despise negative campaigning,” Carr said. “I loathe it.”
Saltsman’s political career has had ups and downs. The Nashville native helmed the Tennessee Republican Party in the late 1990s, and a decade later he ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. But Saltsman drew scorn when he distributed a compact disc that included the parody song “Barack the Magic Negro.”
“As a father of a biracial boy, I thought it was insensitive, but I don’t think Chip meant to be malicious,” Carr said of the 2008 incident. “Quite honestly, he and I didn’t discuss it. It was a slip-up.”
In 2010, Saltsman advised Republican Chuck Fleischmann’s campaign. Using his Huckabee clout, he helped fuel Fleischmann’s 3rd Congressional District victory and re-election two years later. But Fleischmann’s tough 2010 GOP primary resulted in a lawsuit against Saltsman. The case is still pending.
The Washington-based American Federation for Children recently hired Saltsman to promote school vouchers in Tennessee. Several voucher initiatives, including Gov. Bill Haslam’s, died in the Legislature earlier this year.
Saltsman and two DesJarlais aides did not return requests seeking comment.
In an interview Tuesday, Tracy claimed Carr wasn’t Saltsman’s first choice to serve in the 4th District Republican primary.
Tracy said Saltsman called looking for a campaign job sometime before Carr hired Saltsman last week.
“Chip inquired about work. That’s a true statement,” Tracy said. “I told him we weren’t going to be hiring anybody until next year.”
Carr denied Tracy’s account. He insisted that Saltsman had called Tracy merely to discuss “the political landscape.”
Saltsman’s latest venture pits him against a close colleague of his former boss.
Fleischmann’s Chattanooga-centric 3rd District borders plenty of DesJarlais territory, including Grundy, Marion and Sequatchie counties and portions of Bradley County.
In an interview Tuesday, Fleischmann noted that Saltsman still works on “my political payroll.” The congressman said Saltsman’s new job won’t jeopardize his rapport with DesJarlais.
“Scott and I have always had a good relationship,” Fleischmann said. “It’s one of those situations that Chip is a paid political consultant, and this is what he does for a living.”
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.