POLITICS

The Inexplicable Resilience Of Scott DesJarlais, Explained

08/07/2014 03:35 pm 15:35:19 | Updated Aug 08, 2014

Anyone who's opened an article about Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) in the past two years has read the same thing in the opening paragraph: DesJarlais, a physician and outspoken opponent of reproductive rights, is a serial philanderer who has slept with some of his patients, and pressured one of them to get an abortion, on top of the two occasions on which he pressured his ex-wife to do the same.

DesJarlais, having nevertheless prevailed in 2012 over Democratic opponent Eric Stewart, now faces a Republican opponent in Thursday's 4th District primary in the person of Tennessee state Sen. Jim Tracy. And if you're reading stories on the race now, you'll likely hear about how, despite DesJarlais' eminently exploitable faults, he stands a very good chance of skating by once again.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Back in June, The Tennessean (admittedly relying more on assumptions than on actual data) rather confidently asserted that Tracy had the edge in the race. They weren't alone. The National Journal put DesJarlais at the top of their story "Top 10 Lawmakers Who Could Lose a Primary Next Year." Though, it should be noted, the National Journal piece is going to go down as one of the year's poorest efforts at prognostication: Of the races that have concluded, only one of the "Top Ten" has actually lost (Michigan Rep. Kerry Bentivolio), and DesJarlais represents their only hope of notching a second.

And I wouldn't count on DesJarlais losing. There's been a dearth of reliable polling in the race -- the only public poll is one from early June by (the perhaps ironically named) Citizens For Ethics In Government, which had DesJarlais up by 25 points. The race is, in all likelihood, closer than that, but a cloud of pessimism hangs over Tracy's efforts as the race spins into its home stretch. As GOP consultant Chip Saltsman told the National Journal Thursday, "This is a race that Tracy should easily win, and he's not [going to] ... I think it's a toss-up."

Given DesJarlais' ornate, embarrassing scandal, one could hardly have faulted Tracy for assuming that winning wouldn't be all that difficult, especially after Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr cleared out of the race to mount a primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). How has DesJarlais kept his advantage? Here are three reasons:

Tracy waited to bring up DesJarlais' scandals. As crazy as it seems, Tracy actually held off battering DesJarlais on his obvious vulnerabilities. As Nashville Public Radio points out, Tracy's first wave of ads did not even mention DesJarlais, opting instead to refer obliquely to Tracy as a "candidate with integrity who knows how to keep his word." By the end of June, the Tennessean was reporting, "Tracy, to our knowledge, has not brought up the divorce filing [from which public knowledge of DesJarlais' scandals emerged] during the campaign."

It was not until July 13 that the Tracy campaign made explicit mention of DesJarlais' checkered past in a direct mailer. And it wasn't until July 30 that Tracy made a similarly explicit mention of it in a campaign ad. This was 12 days after early voting had begun.

Tracy may have had some compelling reasons to hold off. The DesJarlais-Stewart contest in 2012 was well and duly nastified because of DesJarlais' follies, and it's not hard to see why Tracy may not have wanted to put everyone through a rerun. Tracy also faced a disadvantage, as polling suggested that the public was fairly divided on whether or not they wanted to hold DesJarlais' past conduct against him.

Still, it seems this proves that it would have been better to hit DesJarlais early with the force of righteous anger than to do it late and look like a losing politician who's desperate to win.

Perhaps it's worth considering at this point whether there's actually a dime's worth of difference between DesJarlais and Tracy, if we exclude DesJarlais interpersonal misadventures.

Anti-abortion interest groups, unsurprisingly, largely greeted the contest with a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is the focus of Alex Roarty's piece in the National Journal Thursday, in which he wonders why 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."

Roarty notes that the "pro-life movement" has, by and large, given DesJarlais a "free pass." As to the reasons for that, Roarty theorizes that "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." Tracy has been the race's superior fundraiser -- what cash he's obtained from minor players in the anti-abortion movement amounts to chump change. The larger anti-abortion groups operating in Tennessee -- Right To Life and the National Right To Life PAC -- either said that they had other spending priorities or otherwise kept mum.

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.

Which makes a certain amount of sense, if one assumes that these organizations exist to rehabilitate the reputations of hypocritical politicians. If, however, one operates on the assumption that these groups exist to ensure that reliably anti-abortion lawmakers end up in office, it becomes harder to see what the "squandered opportunity" is. If DesJarlais returns to the House of Representatives, he'll return with his sterling anti-abortion voting record. And while he'll return with the word "hypocrite" tattooed across his glutes, let's face it -- "[THING X] for me but not for thee" is fairly standard operating procedure for members of Congress.

Besides, DesJarlais' hypocrisies are probably good news for anti-abortion groups. They more or less have DesJarlais over a barrel, and I reckon they can recognize a good thing when they see it.

Scott DesJarlais reads Matthew Yglesias. For as long as I can recall, Matt Yglesias has laid out a simple two-step strategy for politicians who want to survive a sex scandal: "(a) be an incumbent and (b) don’t quit!":

David Vitter cheated on his wife with a prostitute. That’s a crime. Bill Clinton cheated on his wife with an intern, and then he lied about it. But they both survived. The key difference between them and Elliot Spitzer is that Spitzer resigned. As I’ve written before the key thing any politician under attack needs to do is get his co-partisans on his side. When scandal breaks, there’s naturally going to be some sentiment that the wrongdoer ought to step down for the good of the party. And maybe he should! But if he’s able to clearly signal that he won’t then suddenly everyone else needs to defend you for the good of the party. And elite signaling is very important in politics. If your copartisans are all defending you, then the controversy becomes just another example of partisan politics. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but it does mean that if the economy’s at your back (Clinton) or you have a safe seat (Vitter) that you’re fine.

Easy-peasy lemon squeezy. DesJarlais holds a safe seat and he's refused to slink off into the great goodnight, and outside of being out-fundraised, it's hard to point to a significant source of conflict between him and his co-partisans.

Perhaps most importantly, DesJarlais sought forgiveness -- in a fashion, anyway. In an appearance on conservative talker Ralph Bristol's radio show, DesJarlais said:

“But I know God’s forgiven me. I simply ask my fellow Christians and constituents to [do] the same for me. So, I don’t think I was intentionally misleading anybody.”

God's endorsement in this matter has not yet been independently corroborated. And as far as God's forgiveness goes, I suppose one can't rule out the possibility that DesJarlais may be in for something of a surprise at some point down the road. But there's a good chance it's not going to happen in tonight's primary.

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