Why Abortion Groups Ignored the Man They Hate

In Tennessee, a scandal-plagued Republican congressman’s seemingly inevitable defeat might have convinced some abortion-opponents they didn’t need to work against him. They were wrong.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, left, takes a photograph with his iPhone during an oversight committee hearing
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Alex Roarty
Aug. 7, 2014, 4:05 a.m.

Scott Des­Jar­lais slept with his former pa­tients, en­cour­aged one to have an abor­tion, and twice urged his ex-wife to have an abor­tion. But oddly enough, when it came time for the Ten­ness­ee rep­res­ent­at­ive to run for reelec­tion, the “pro-life” move­ment that had the most reas­on to des­pise him has in­stead giv­en him close to a free pass.

The vast net­work of in­flu­en­tial anti-abor­tion-rights groups, many of which are rarely shy about mak­ing their voices heard, have been re­mark­ably ab­sent from Des­Jar­lais’s primary, a re­view of the 4th Dis­trict con­test shows. In some cases, the groups haven’t provided even so much as en­dorse­ment against the in­cum­bent law­maker, much less con­tri­bu­tions or well-fun­ded in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ures.

Their ab­sence has eli­cited con­fu­sion and curi­os­ity among many Re­pub­lic­ans closely watch­ing the race, many of whom are won­der­ing why a law­maker who is the em­bod­i­ment of abor­tion-polit­ics hy­po­crisy hasn’t been more of a tar­get. By Fri­day, that might turn to an­ger: Once con­sidered a long shot, Des­Jar­lais is now seen by some loc­al polit­ic­al strategists as an even bet to win his Thursday primary against state Sen. Jim Tracy.

“This is a race that Tracy should eas­ily win, and he’s not [go­ing to],” said Chip Salts­man, a long­time GOP op­er­at­ive in Ten­ness­ee. “I think it’s a toss-up.”

If Des­Jar­lais does win, it’s a fair as­sump­tion that some of the post­game fin­ger-point­ing will be dir­ec­ted to­ward the anti-abor­tion groups, who will have squandered an op­por­tun­ity to take down a law­maker whose mere pres­ence in Wash­ing­ton opens the move­ment up to cries of hy­po­crisy.

The most glar­ing ab­sence from the 4th Dis­trict primary has been Right to Life, the in­flu­en­tial polit­ic­al group with both na­tion­al and Ten­ness­ee chapters. Neither has so much as en­dorsed Tracy.

In the case of the Ten­ness­ee chapter, Des­Jar­lais has be­nefited from its de­cision to fo­cus this year en­tirely on sup­port for an amend­ment to the state Con­sti­tu­tion that would makes it easi­er to leg­ally re­strict abor­tions. (Voters would have to ap­prove the amend­ment in Novem­ber.) The group’s polit­ic­al arm hasn’t made any en­dorse­ments this elec­tion cycle, ac­cord­ing to its pres­id­ent, Bri­an Har­ris, in part be­cause the time and en­ergy re­quired to sup­port can­did­ates would take away from the drive to pass the amend­ment. He ad­ded that he also feared that sup­port­ing Tracy over Des­Jar­lais would ali­en­ate some of the in­cum­bent’s sup­port­ers and si­phon their sup­port from the amend­ment.

“Across the board, we de­term­ined the best use of our time en­ergy and re­sources was pas­sage of a pro-life amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion,” Har­ris said.

Why the Na­tion­al Right to Life PAC didn’t make an en­dorse­ment is less clear: The group has backed Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der in his con­tested primary on Thursday. On its web­site list­ing en­dorse­ments in Ten­ness­ee House races, it says only to “check back soon for up­dates!” Rep­res­ent­at­ives for the PAC did not re­spond to mul­tiple re­quests for com­ment.

Tracy has re­ceived en­dorse­ments from a hand­ful of groups that op­pose abor­tion-rights, in­clud­ing the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil PAC and Amer­ic­an Con­ser­vat­ive Uni­on. The so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive group Con­cerned Wo­men Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Com­mit­tee also bundled about $2,000 for the chal­lenger, and FRC’s PAC con­trib­uted $1,000. But in a con­test where Tracy has raised more than $1 mil­lion, those totals don’t do much to move the needle.

There’s no doubt that Des­Jar­lais’s per­son­al scan­dals al­most crippled his can­did­acy from the get-go. The rev­el­a­tions that he had twice en­cour­aged his former wife to get an abor­tion be­came pub­lic in Novem­ber 2012, a few weeks after his pre­vi­ous elec­tion. His per­son­al life had already been un­der fire from crit­ics, after court tran­scripts showed that Des­Jar­lais, a doc­tor, had once slept with a pa­tient and then urged her to get an abor­tion, and had car­ried on af­fairs with mul­tiple cowork­ers and oth­ers.

By early Janu­ary, Tracy had entered the race — far earli­er than most chal­lengers — and he car­ried the un­of­fi­cial im­prim­at­ur of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment des­pite run­ning against an in­cum­bent. Through mid-Ju­ly, Tracy had raised roughly a $1 mil­lion more than Des­Jar­lais, who had col­lec­ted only a mea­ger $440,000.

But Tracy’s early suc­cess might have ac­tu­ally worked against him, con­vin­cing most groups, in­clud­ing those fo­cused on abor­tion polit­ics, that their money would be bet­ter spent else­where.

“The repu­ta­tion around this race for a very long time has been that Jim Tracy was go­ing to run with it,” said Joe Hall, a Ten­ness­ee GOP strategist. “When that oc­curs, money will sit it out. And de­cisions are made to in­vest else­where where it will have a big­ger ef­fect.”

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans sug­gest the scan­dal’s tim­ing, com­ing al­most two years ago, has al­lowed Des­Jar­lais enough time to re­pair his im­age (aided by his 100 per­cent pro-life vot­ing re­cord this ses­sion.) He has been open about his pleas for for­give­ness, which res­on­ates in the heav­ily Chris­ti­an dis­trict, and has re­ceived a con­sid­er­able boost in sup­port from his cur­rent wife, Amy. Her un­waver­ing sup­port of his cam­paign has been cru­cial to his polit­ic­al re­hab­il­it­a­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans said.

“She just softens him up,” said one loc­al GOP op­er­at­ive, who has watched the race closely. “He’s been pretty smart — he car­ries her around all over the dis­trict be­cause she helps him.”

He’s also been helped in part by the dis­trict’s sharp Re­pub­lic­an lean, the kind of con­ser­vat­ive elect­or­ate where na­tion­al strategists don’t worry about hold­ing the seat re­gard­less of who the nom­in­ee is. It’s not ne­ces­sar­ily a slam-dunk that Des­Jar­lais would win reelec­tion in the fall — a source with­in EMILY’s List, the pro-choice Demo­crat­ic wo­men’s group, said they would con­sider back­ing his op­pon­ent should the con­gress­man be the nom­in­ee — but he’s still a strong bet.

Which would be much to the chag­rin of some Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics.

“I can’t be­lieve more pro-life groups didn’t work against Des­Jar­lais based on his lack of char­ac­ter,” said one per­son well con­nec­ted in the pro-life move­ment, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “The man’s a dirt bag.”

What We're Following See More »
CNN/ORC Has Clinton Up 5 Points
5 hours ago

Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump 49%-44% in a new CNN/ORC poll out Monday afternoon. But it's Gary Johnson's performance, or lack thereof, that's the real story. Johnson, who had cleared 10% in some surveys earlier this fall, as he made a bid to qualify for the debates, is down to 3% support. He must hit 5% nationwide for the Libertarian Party to qualify for some federal matching funds in future elections.

Rapper Jay Z to Perform Concert for Clinton
6 hours ago
Log Cabin Republicans Don’t Endorse Trump
6 hours ago

While the organization praised him for being "perhaps the most pro-LGBT presidential nominee in the history of the Republican Party," the Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Donald Trump for president. The organization, which is the largest gay organization in the United States, said that Trump failed to earn its endorsement because he surrounded himself with anti-LGBTQ people "and committed himself to supporting legislation such as the so-called 'First Amendment Defense Act' that Log Cabin Republicans opposes."

Congress Needs to Deal With Impending Nuclear Plant Closures
6 hours ago

Energy Secretary Ernesto Moniz is warning Congress "that Congress and businesses need to act with more urgency to work out a medley of challenges in promoting nuclear power." A number of nuclear plants are currently on track to close around 2030, unless their licenses are extended from 60 years to 80 years, something that could jeopardize the success of the Clean Power Plan. Moniz called on Congress to pass legislation creating interim storage facilities for used nuclear power.

Trump Pocketed Insurance Money Following 2005 Hurricane
7 hours ago

Donald Trump has said he received a $17 million insurance payment in 2005 following Hurricane Wilma, which he claimed did severe damage to his private club in Florida. However, an Associated Press investigation could not find any evidence of the large-scale damage that Trump has mentioned. Additionally, Trump claimed that he transferred some of the $17 million to his personal account thanks to a "very good insurance policy."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.