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
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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.”

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