published Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Handicappers: Jim Tracy has edge over Rep. Scott DesJarlais in Republican primary

Jim Tracy, a candidate for Congress in the 4th District, walks out of his campaign office in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo by Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean)
Jim Tracy, a candidate for Congress in the 4th District, walks out of his campaign office in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (Photo by Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean)
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Jim Tracy has run for Congress before and lost. He’s trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Given the baggage his opponent must bear, Tracy starts from a position of strength. But to win he’ll have to explain some of his state Senate votes to conservatives who dominate the 4th Congressional District.

Political handicappers list U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, Tracy’s main opponent in the Aug. 7 Republican primary, as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents. Since sweeping into office four years ago, the South Pittsburg physician has been hurt by revelations stemming from an ugly divorce and slowed by indifferent fundraising.

With the focus on his foe, Tracy has moved cautiously. The veteran state senator launched his campaign for Congress nearly a year and a half ago, but he has spent most of his time tying up the endorsements of prominent Republican leaders, tapping donors for contributions and keeping his spending low.

The next two months will show whether Tracy, a former high school baseball coach and college basketball referee, has drawn up the right game plan. It would take a major shift in fortunes for him to lose.

Tracy says his campaign is running much better than four years ago, when he came close to joining DesJarlais as a freshman in Congress. He finished third in what was then the 6th Congressional District, less than a percentage point behind winner Diane Black and runner-up Lou Ann Zelenik.

Zelenik, who continues to wield influence in tea party circles, now says she’ll try to mobilize activists on DesJarlais’ behalf. Whether that will shake up the race remains to be seen.

“Jim’s raised a lot of money,” Zelenik said. “I think it’s going to take steadfast support to get him [DesJarlais] over.”

After a decade in the state Legislature, Tracy’s weakness could be a long legislative record, which includes votes and statements on everything from abortion to education to President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. His past positions can seem at odds with his current ones.

An experienced politician, Tracy has answers ready. And he will have the upper hand in placing those answers before the voters in the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from the southern border of Davidson County to the eastern suburbs of Chattanooga, across 16 counties and through three media markets.

Tracy has raised more than $1.2 million. He had spent just over $300,000 through March, mainly on advisers, leaving him with more than $900,000 in the bank. DesJarlais has less than $200,000 on hand.

Television advertisements, which Tracy plans to start airing soon, should carry a lot of weight. So should Rutherford County, where more than one in four of the 4th District’s Republican voters lives.

Move shows county’s importance

Tracy recently moved from Shelbyville to a condo in Murfreesboro, and he has placed his campaign headquarters there, an indication of the county’s importance.

On a recent weekday morning, that campaign was just beginning to take shape. A handful of young men wearing red polo shirts prepared to go out and place yard signs. With his campaign manager sitting nearby, Tracy went over some past votes that could leave him vulnerable.

For instance, he voted in 2010 for legislation related to Race to the Top, Obama’s program to encourage states to reshape their education system by offering them extra education funding. Tennessee would receive $500 million from the federal government, but the effort set the state on a path toward adopting Common Core education standards.

That program, which was developed by governors and state education officials, has since grown controversial, particularly among conservative Republicans who see it as a federal takeover.

Tracy says he was right to vote for reform legislation in 2010. But he says he never backed Common Core specifically, even though the program was named in a financial synopsis of the bill’s impact provided to lawmakers before they voted.

“We were trying to improve our schools in the state of Tennessee, and we needed to improve our schools,” he said. “That’s what Race to the Top was all about.”

The issue of Common Core could come up frequently in the race’s final weeks, but it did not come up once that morning as Tracy toured the halls and classrooms of Hobgood Elementary in Murfreesboro. Several teachers greeted him with familiarity, recalling previous visits to the school or his work as a referee. A few students asked to pose with him for pictures.

Other issues Tracy could have to deal with include his support for accepting federal stimulus money in 2009 and his decision in 2013 to file — and then withdraw — a bill that would have required women to receive an ultrasound when seeking an abortion.

At the time, Tracy seemed hazy on whether an ultrasound could be conducted externally on woman early in their pregnancies, a question that had caused pro-life politicians in other states to reject such measures. He says now that he dropped the bill because he did not want the issue to distract from this fall’s abortion amendment campaign.

Tracy also could confront attacks over the prominent donors who back his campaign. This spring, he sponsored legislation meant to disrupt the Amp bus rapid transit project in Nashville. Lee Beaman, a major Amp opponent, has given $10,000 to Tracy’s current and previous congressional campaigns, as well as to his legislative campaigns, but Tracy said his involvement was not a favor for a supporter.

“It has everything to do with being a good steward of the taxpayer money,” Tracy said. “That’s what it was all about to me. Period.”

Zelenik said that record led her to back DesJarlais.

“I’m tired of the politics,” she said.

Most political analysts, however, see little chance DesJarlais could win. Last month, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call named DesJarlais one of the nation’s 10 most vulnerable incumbents, echoing the predictions of many other prognosticators over the past 18 months.

“It’s increasingly difficult to see any path to victory for DesJarlais,” it said.

DesJarlais goes into the election burdened by personal baggage laid out in his 2001 divorce filing, which revealed the pro-life congressman’s former wife had two abortions early in their relationship with his support and that he had urged a patient with whom he had a relationship to get an abortion.

DesJarlais says he’s moved past that chapter and now is happily married. Tracy, for his part, has refrained from criticizing his opponent’s personal history. His campaign literature says only that Tracy is “100% pro-life” and has been married for 37 years.

The addition of Zelenik, an experienced congressional candidate, to DesJarlais’ corner might give him a boost. But Tracy said he is not concerned.

“We’re very pleased where we are,” he said.

From that position, most observers believe the race is Tracy’s to lose.

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