Doug Crisp, speaking outside the evangelical Grace Baptist Church in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, said he plans to support Representative Scott DesJarlais, a freshman, pro-life physician and anti-tax Tea Party-backed Republican.
Crisp said his support isn’t surprising even though DesJarlais, in a recorded phone conversation more than a decade ago, tried to persuade a patient with whom he’s admitted having an affair to get an abortion.
“I’ve known Scott a long time, he’s a good guy,” Crisp, a 35 year-old resident of nearby Kimball, Tennessee, said in an interview outside Wednesday night services on Oct. 24. “For me, he’s honest, he’s always been up front with people. I hate what happened, but he’s human.”
Crisp’s sentiment was echoed by other church members in this town of about 3,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where DesJarlais, who declined to be interviewed for this story, resides with his second wife and his three children.
Others, like Calvin Case, 50, said the transcript, which surfaced for the first time earlier this month, was “very, very troubling” and would keep him from voting for DesJarlais, who he said was “trying to weasel out” of blame.
“I believe that if you run for political office, you ought to be up front and honest with everything,” said Case, a pro-life South Pittsburg resident and member of Grace Baptist Church.
The abortion revelation has given Democrats a potential bonus pickup in their uphill fight to gain control of the House of Representatives. Analysts say House Democrats probably will fall far short of the 25 seats they need to win to capture the majority in the chamber.
The Huffington Post first reported the transcript of the September 2000 phone call in which DesJarlais, who was going through a divorce, told a patient he’d been seeing, “You told me you’d have an abortion, and now we’re getting too far along without one.”
A Chattanooga newspaper, the Times Free Press, published a story Oct. 28 anonymously quoting a second woman who claimed to have had an affair with DesJarlais in 2000 while she was his patient.
“What’s come out goes to the hypocrisy of folks who will go to Washington and talk one way but they won’t walk the walk,” state Senator Eric Stewart, DesJarlais’s Democratic opponent, said in an interview.
DesJarlais, 48, whose divorce from his first wife became final in 2001, has acknowledged the affair. He said he only encouraged the woman to have an abortion because he believed she wasn’t actually pregnant and wanted to call her bluff.
In an e-mailed statement, DesJarlais campaign manager Brandon Lewis said Stewart was “trying to use recycled garbage” to mount a “smear campaign to cover up” his “support of Barack Obama,” who is unpopular in Tennessee. DesJarlais’s campaign began airing an ad last week accusing Stewart of using “recycled garbage” against him.
Two years ago, then-Democratic Representative Lincoln Davis, who DesJarlais beat by 19 percentage points, ran ads emphasizing allegations from court records that DesJarlais intimidated his ex-wife with a gun.
“Lincoln Davis all but threw the kitchen sink against this guy personally,” said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “So there is a little bit of inoculation that is already there.”
In 2010, Davis’s strategy backfired because many voters “perceived that line of attack on DesJarlais as distracting from the real issue at hand,” Wasserman said.
Another Grace Baptist Church parishioner, Jimmy Haley, 42, said he opposed abortion in all instances except rape and that he would vote for DesJarlais because he was concerned the 2010 health-care law would endanger his job working for a hardwood floor manufacturer.
Haley, a South Pittsburg resident, said DesJarlais had more experience helping the poor receive health care than Obama.
“He’s been here in the middle of it, and he sees it,” he said. “I know a bunch of people he’s seen for free that didn’t have medical care.”
Several local residents said they’d heard rumors going back to before 2010 that DesJarlais had been sexually involved with patients.
‘He’s a Liar’
Pat Long, 66, a South Pittsburg resident and member of the First Baptist Church there, said she wouldn’t support DesJarlais.
“I just feel like he’s a liar,” Long said.
Long said she met the congressman years ago when she sought medical care from him and “felt like he had a sour personality.”
“I had gone to him as a doctor, and I didn’t like him,” she said.
Elected as part of the Tea Party wave that swept Republicans to a House majority two years ago, DesJarlais has been a reliable supporter of anti-abortion legislation, earning a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life. He’d never before held elected office.
House Majority PAC, a Democratic super-political action committee, yesterday launched its second ad attacking DesJarlais, a $180,000 buy for a spot calling DesJarlais a hypocrite and contending that he “shouldn’t be representing us.”
With national party help, Stewart is trying to close a fundraising gap. Through Oct. 17, DesJarlais had raised $1.1 million and had about $320,000 in cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks campaign spending. Stewart had raised about $546,000 and had about $110,000 in cash on hand, according to the group.
Through Oct. 22, Stewart and House Majority PAC had spent $148,130 on 209 advertising spots. That compares with $338,720 that DesJarlais had spent on 557 spots, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
National Republicans, who have been fighting Democrats’ claims that their party is anti-women, have kept their distance from DesJarlais. Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana have drawn Democratic fire for comments about abortion. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney dropped DesJarlais’s endorsement from his website after the call transcript surfaced.
One Stewart ad features headlines about the DesJarlais abortion dustup and describes Stewart as “a better choice.”
Ralyn Tuders, a 21-year-old South Pittsburg resident who said she plans to vote for the first time on Nov. 6, said she started to tune out the negative ads both sides are running.
“I see the commercials on it, and to me, politics is nothing but mudslinging sometimes,” said Tuders, a member of the First Baptist Church who said she is still deciding who she will support in the congressional race. “It’s all about ‘let me badmouth you so I can get my foot up.’”