If Congress operated according to public opinion, Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee would be a pariah in the halls of the House.
A self-proclaimed social conservative, DesJarlais has been in political trouble since news reports revealed he pressured a former patient of his to get an abortion after they had an affair, details that emerged during divorce proceedings. Later, after he won reelection, reports showed he and his wife had agreed to have two abortions before their divorce.
But unlike some other scandal-wracked politicians like Anthony Weiner, Eric Massa, or Eliot Spitzer, DesJarlais hasn’t become an outcast at all. Republican leaders haven’t punished him. He still holds positions on the Agriculture and, yes, the Oversight and Government Reform committees. Even more glaring: He’s getting fundraising assistance on Tuesday from six influential colleagues, including three committee chairmen (GOP Reps. Darrell Issa of California, John Kline of Minnesota, and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma) and two potential Senate candidates (Kline and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia).
Responding to calls asking why they would want to associate with a scandal-plagued congressman, several praised DesJarlais' conduct in office.
“Congressman DesJarlais’s hard work and outstanding contributions to congressional oversight on issues ranging from the devastating impact of Obamacare on small business to job-killing regulations in Tennessee have earned him Chairman Issa’s support,” Issa’s spokesman Frederick Hill said. “Chairman Issa looks forward to continuing to work with Congressman DesJarlais as he pursues the best interests of his district and our nation.”
Kline, who won’t be attending the fundraiser because of a scheduling conflict, has a similar rationale for supporting DesJarlais, according to his aides.
"Congressman Kline has a working relationship with all of his committee members," the Minnesota legislator’s spokesman said.
Back in Tennessee, things don't look so welcoming for DesJarlais.
There’s skepticism among Republicans who predict that DesJarlais will have trouble winning a primary. Already, Tennessee state Sen. Jim Tracy, who has a base of support within the newly drawn district, has announced he’s running. State Rep. Joe Carr, known for organizing a fundraising event called “T-Bones and Politics,” is strongly considering a run. Tracy plans on invoking the scandal as part of his campaign.
“I think the people in the 4th Congressional District want to vote for someone that is conservative both in word and deed,” Tracy said in an interview. “And I do believe that is in an issue.” Tracy’s campaign site shows a photo of him with his family, a not-too-subtle contrast with DesJarlais, whose ugly divorce proceedings were the reason for the scandalous headlines last year.
DesJarlais won reelection last year after the damaging news reports, but Tennessee Republican strategists are skeptical he can win again in the newly drawn district, where about two-thirds of his constituents are new to him.
“The problem for Scott is that he's not really known that well in those new areas. He's really known more for the scandal,” said one Tennessee GOP strategist. The main factor keeping him alive is that he only needs to win a plurality of the vote to win the primary. If additional Republican candidates enter the race, it becomes more winnable for the incumbent.
The ironic part of the fundraiser is that it’s giving him a financial lifeline in Washington, just at the time when Tennessee Republicans thought he was financially tapped out. He ended the year with a measly $9,000 in his campaign account. Tennessee Republicans have been pessimistic that DesJarlais would be able to raise enough campaign cash for the race, believing the scandal dried up financial support from well-heeled donors in the state.
“I don't know if he'll be able to raise the money,” said Tennessee Republican Party committee member Oscar Brock. “Most of this story didn't come out until after the November elections. Parts had come out, but not all the nitty gritty. While Republicans stood by him in November, it got harder to stand by after the details came out.”
But for his friends in Congress, not that hard to stand by.
This article appears in the March 19, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.