published Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Lawyers enter 4th Congressional District GOP primary picture

  • photo
    U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., and his wife, Amy, second from right, are cheered Thursday in South Pittsburg, Tenn.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, talks on the phone and waves at cars at a polling place as he campaigns for Congress on Thursday in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE — Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Sen. Jim Tracy are now talking with lawyers as the two 4th Congressional District GOP primary foes prepare for a potential legal fight over the congressman's razor-thin victory in Thursday's race.

"We are going to take all possible precautions in order to preserve the integrity of this result," said DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson. "If that means bringing on legal counsel then that is something we are prepared to do."

Tracy's camp is also talking with attorneys, according to an aide.

That comes after a tumultuous election in which just 35 votes separate DesJarlais and Tracy out of 77,492 cast.

DesJarlais, a South Pittsburg physician once seen as one of the nation's most vulnerable incumbents over personal revelations from his past, edged out Tracy by 34,787 to 34,752 votes.

It was so close that at one point Tracy, a state senator from Shelbyville, declared victory before all the votes were in. Tracy said there was no way DesJarlais could catch up.

But that proved premature and on Friday DesJarlais declared victory although the votes have yet to be certified and a number of provisional ballots remain outstanding.

Sorting through them could take days and some county election commissions aren't scheduled to certify ballots until Aug. 25, according to state officials.

The Tracy campaign estimates there may be about 100 such ballots in which people were allowed to cast provisional ballots despite having no required photo identification or other issues such as not showing up in databases as registered or even having voted before.

Tracy said in a statement he is "thankful to all of the hundreds of volunteers who knocked on doors and made phone calls and talked to their neighbors on my behalf. We've had a great grass-roots effort, and I am proud of the campaign we have run. There are still ballots left to be counted in the Fourth District Republican primary as we go through the certification process."

Local election commissions will have to go through each provisional ballot. The DesJarlais camp scoffs that the number is that high in the 16-county district.

During the campaign, Tracy hammered at the unsavory past of DesJarlais, who according to a transcript of his 2000 divorce had affairs with two patients, one of whom he pressured to seek an abortion, and having earlier gone along with his ex-wife's decision to get two abortions prior to their marriage.

Tennesseans, DesJarlais said, "chose to judge me on my record in Washington," and also focused on his subsequent, happier marriage to his second wife, Amy.

"My campaign made it clear from the beginning we would run on my independent, conservative record and that is precisely what we did," DesJarlais said in a statement. "While my opponent engaged in desperate and disgusting personal attacks, at the end of the day voters cared more about the job I have done in Congress."

During the 2012 campaign, a partial transcript emerged of a tape DesJarlais made with the patient whom he urged to get an abortion. Following the election, everything else tumbled into the public domain after the entire divorce transcript was released. Last year, the state Board of Medical Examiners fined the doctor $500 for the affairs with patients.

GOP operatives say part of Tracy's problem was he campaigned as virtually an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year. DesJarlais was able to position himself as the insurgent, maintaining strong tea party support for his political combat with President Barack Obama and a voting record ranked as the fourth most conservative in the U.S. House.

Tracy also soft-pedaled the scandal with his initial ads talking about "integrity" and effectiveness, not even mentioning DesJarlais. It wasn't until the second week of July that he began sharpening his attacks and referring to DesJarlais and his past.

Voters had mixed views about the attack.

"I'm a great believer in human redemption," said Tom Burks, a Murfreesboro voter. "I've known people who have done terrible, terrible things and have come out the other side of it -- and have come out as good people."

Said a woman voter in Murfreesboro of Tracy: "I like what he stands for. That [abortions, extramarital affairs] is an issue."

Another potential factor in a contest with a 35-vote margin, observers say, was the fact that the state's top pro-life organization, Tennessee Right to Life, didn't get involved and never made an endorsement. Nor did National Right to Life.

But Concerned Women PAC, a national group that promotes "core" issues like "sanctity of human life," did endorse Tracy, citing DesJarlais' "abandonment" of "core principles." That was in 2013 and the DesJarlais campaign angrily pushed back.

Tennessee Right to Life President Brian Harris said via email Friday that "it's not a mystery" why the group didn't get involved. "Plain and simple, our longtime priority has been passage of Amendment 1 which will be on the ballot in less than three months."

That's a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would strip abortion protections arising from a 2000 Tennessee Supreme Court decision.

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said his "gut feeling" is there is another reason. "They [DesJarlais and Tracy] probably both had friends in the organization -- enough to stop an endorsement of the other guy."

And while Tracy didn't hit DesJarlais on any of his votes, the congressman attacked Tracy on his record in the Legislature in areas like Common Core education standards -- a hot button for tea party and 9/12 conservatives.

Tracy said he didn't vote for Common Core. But DesJarlais argued his vote for Tennessee's First To The Top application in 2010, which won the state $500 million to implement education reform, amounted to just that.

Finally, there were five other candidates in this contest. Most were well to the right of DesJarlais and Tracy. Collectively they wound up with about 10 percent of the vote. One was Bedford County public school teacher John Anderson, who wound up with 4,590 votes after he conducted a monthslong, 700-mile trek across the district. Anderson's message?

"To carry out a revolution, and I use that word unabashedly, not a violent revolution but a political revolution," Anderson said Friday. "We're going to save America. That's the message that I carried."

He also carried another message -- charges that Tracy supported Common Core, which Anderson sees as a major threat to the nation's children.

"Jim became very dishonest about it," said Anderson, who on Friday endorsed DesJarlais.

The ultimate victor in the race will face Democrat Lenda Sherrell in the Nov. 4 general election.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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