WASHINGTON — Sex, abortions and civil penalties: Sound like the makings of a negative ad?
To most politicians, yes. Still, two men in a prime position to stir the pot and produce powerful 30-second TV commercials say they likely will refrain in their campaigns to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais -- arguably the federal legislator with the most baggage in Tennessee and possibly the South.
State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, are challenging DesJarlais in next year's 4th District Republican primary.
The second-term incumbent, a physician fined $500 last week by the state's medical board, continues to battle charges of unethical behavior. According to the board's findings, he had sex with two of his patients in 2000. Ten years later, he successfully campaigned as an anti-abortion advocate. Then in 2012, documents turned up showing he encouraged his ex-wife to get two abortions in the 1990s.
Voters last year knew about the Jasper Republican's sex with patients and re-elected him. But they only found out about the abortion revelations after Election Day, meaning Carr and Tracy have the first crack at painting DesJarlais as a hypocrite.
To hear the challengers tell it, though, this is just your average Republican primary. In a recent interview, Carr said he "despises" and "loathes" negative campaigning. Those statements came a day after he hired Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist known for his work in the political dark arts.
"We're not running a campaign based on what happened to the congressman 12 or 14 years ago," Carr said last week. "That's not why we're in this race."
Tracy? For now, equally dismissive when asked about DesJarlais' struggles.
"I'm focused on what I call a grass-roots, issue-oriented campaign -- Benghazi, the IRS and restoring the public's trust in government," Tracy said. "People will be able to tell the difference between me and Congressman DesJarlais."
Former Rep. Zach Wamp said it's admirable -- but probably unrealistic -- to think that both candidates will uphold their positive pledges. Victory means everything, he said, and desperate candidates go to desperate lengths to get there.
"None of this means their campaign operatives are not planting seeds everywhere they go to try to raise the negatives of the incumbent while publicly touting their own positive platform," Wamp said.
Wamp predicted that, throughout the campaign, debate moderators, media organizations and the challengers' supporters will air DesJarlais' troubles without Carr and Tracy ever lifting a finger.
"They'll want to be as clean and positive as they possibly can be," Wamp said, "and these revelations already will be on the table."
Tracy declined to say directly whether he'll hammer DesJarlais if the incumbent's troubles are broached at a debate.
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Tracy said. "I've never dodged a question before."
Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said the challengers may attack DesJarlais' past directly if the congressman digs into their professional careers and finds impropriety.
But, the professor said, that's unlikely.
"It's dangerous for DesJarlais to raise ethical concerns about Tracy and Carr," Oppenheimer said. "That's the pot calling the kettle black."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at 423-280-2025 or firstname.lastname@example.org.