By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
COALMONT, Tenn. — A GOP congressman’s discussion with his mistress about getting an abortion has stirred unease in his conservative, rural district, and his Democratic challenger is now trying to convert that disappointment into votes.
However, some in the 4th District are sticking by freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais and dismissing the decade-old transcript of a phone conversation as a smear tactic.
Early voting ahead of the Nov. 6 election began Wednesday, a week after the district learned of the transcript of DesJarlais arguing with the woman, who had also been under his care as a doctor.
“It doesn’t affect my thinking,” said Alf Adams, 85, a retired lawyer from Beersheba Springs. “Because I think he’s done a good job — and I think it’s probably a smear attack.”
DesJarlais, who is seeking re-election on a conservative platform that opposes abortion rights, has acknowledged that the conversation happened and that he suggested traveling to Atlanta to get an abortion.
He explains it away by saying he used stark language to push the woman to admit she wasn’t pregnant. He claims now there was no pregnancy or abortion.
And while the transcript includes DesJarlais telling the woman he’s hoping to save his marriage, he says she shouldn’t be called his mistress because he and his wife had agreed they could date others while separated.
“I am not trying to justify my actions or say that I am without fault,” DesJarlais said in an open letter to supporters. “But I am not the hypocrite my opponents and some liberal media outlets are portraying me as.”
The congressman’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Eric Stewart, has sought to capitalize on the revelations to jump-start his campaign in the district spanning 15 counties from the suburbs of Nashville to the outskirts of Chattanooga.
The House Majority PAC has announced it will spend $100,000 to air a TV ad attacking DesJarlais. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added Stewart to its “Red to Blue” list of 55 candidates to receive enhanced support. But the DCCC did not say what level of support Stewart would receive, and DesJarlais enjoyed a 7-to-1 advantage in cash on hand at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter.
Voters have expressed varying opinions about the allegations against DesJarlais.
Alice Sweeton, 63, who runs Shelley’s Gifts and Flowers in Coalmont, said she is a staunch opponent of abortion. She said she was concerned about DesJarlais’ explanation.
“What if she had been pregnant? He would have given her the OK to do it,” she said. “Some men can intimidate women into doing that.”
Joe Elliot, a retired minister from Murfreesboro, said he voted for Republican Mitt Romney for president, but decided to vote against DesJarlais because of the abortion discussion news.
“When someone has those sorts of issues, I’m very leery of those,” said Elliot, 75. “For a lot of people it might not matter, but it does to me.”
While the transcript has been scrutinized in the national and state media — and lampooned on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” — there has been little public fallout for DesJarlais. However, the Romney campaign did remove the congressman’s endorsement from its website.
One state group, the Tennessee Conservative Union, has said it is seeking to form a coalition to demand DesJarlais’ resignation, but details have yet to emerge.
State Republicans have largely sought to avoid the issue altogether. None of DesJarlais’ six Republican colleagues in state’s congressional delegation returned calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. The state Republican Party initially issued a statement of strong support for DesJarlais, but has since appeared to back off.
“Congressman DesJarlais has spoken to the people of the 4th District on this issue and we have nothing to add to his comments,” state GOP chairman Chris Devaney said in a statement.
It’s not the first time explosive allegations have been levied against DesJarlais late in the campaign. What happened in 2010 is a cautionary tale for Democrats trying to leverage the latest allegations.
Then-Rep. Lincoln Davis used records from DesJarlais’ messy divorce, which was finalized in 2001, to run negative TV ads that reported DesJarlais once repeatedly pulled the trigger of an unloaded gun outside his wife’s bedroom door and another time held a gun in his mouth for three hours.
Davis regretted the ads and says now they helped tip the election to his little-known opponent.
Paul Guyear, who works at Hwy 41 Auto, Tire and Lube in Tracy City, is one voter who was turned off by the ads and voted for DesJarlais two years ago. His reaction is similar this year.
“I wasn’t going to vote for him but I am now,” said Guyear, 68. “It’s just like last time, it’s the same old thing.”