WINCHESTER, Tenn. (AP) — Short on campaign cash and facing two formidable opponents from within his own party, Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais kicked off his bid for a third term Wednesday in the face of personal issues that nearly derailed his previous campaign.
Dismissing criticism over his infidelities and over having encouraged his wife and a lover to seek abortions, DesJarlais launched his re-election attempt from the steps of the courthouse in Winchester before about 100 supporters huddled under umbrellas as a storm approached.
The congressman got his loudest cheer for pledging to continue to fight President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“We’re the last line of defense between President Obama and his radical vision for America,” he said in a 10-minute speech. “If we do not take a stand, then who will?”
The Jasper physician, who was reprimanded and fined by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners in May for having sex with patients before he was elected, said those events have no bearing on his performance in office.
“It’s no secret that my opponents and the media love to pick apart mistakes I made in the 1990s, long before I ever decided to run for Congress,” he told the crowd.
“We’ve endured about three years of rather vicious attacks,” he said. “But through all this we’ve come to realize they have no better option than to try to tear me down personally, because they certainly haven’t found a way to attack me on what I stand for and how I do my job as a congressman.”
In both the 2010 and 2012 elections, DesJarlais tried to cast doubt on reports of violent behavior toward his ex-wife and about multiple extramarital affairs before his divorce was finalized.
But court transcripts released the week after last November’s election revealed that he admitted under oath to eight affairs, encouraged a lover to get an abortion and used a gun to intimidate his first wife during an argument.
The testimony also revealed that DesJarlais, who now opposes abortion rights, and his ex-wife agreed to seek two abortions.
In his previous two races, damaging revelations about his personal life did not come into focus until the general election, and he was able to tap into strong GOP support to defeat his Democratic opponents.
But this time DesJarlais has drawn primary opponents in state Rep. Joe Carr and state Sen. Jim Tracy. Both have far outraised DesJarlais so far, even while steering largely clear of mentioning the incumbent’s personal problems.
DesJarlais said he’s not worried about making up fundraising ground, telling supporters he’s been focused on his job in Congress.
“You spend too much time campaigning and they criticize you for not doing you job, but if you focus on your job they criticize you for not campaigning enough,” he said.
Supporters at the event said they were not concerned about DesJarlais’ past.
“That’s the past,” said Donna Reid, a tea party enthusiast from Morrison. “What he does right now is what we sent him up there to do.”
Fellow supporter Judy Johnson of Sewanee agreed.
“They can talk about all the scandals they want about Scott DesJarlais, but they need to start cleaning out Washington first,” she said.
Adam Nickas, a Republican operative and former executive director of the state party, said with a year to go before the primary election, there should be enough time for any candidate to be competitive.
“But the fundraising numbers have to be disconcerting to the incumbent,” he said. “While most voters would like to think that elections come down to issues, I think this election is going to be determined by voters deciding who they are most comfortable with.”
Chip Saltsman, a strategist for the Carr campaign, said DesJarlais’ personal past was bound to a concern for voters.
“His past will be an issue, because you can’t help it,” he said. “But the Joe Carr campaign is going to make this campaign about Joe Carr, not about Scott DesJarlais.”