DesJarlais defeated a primary challenger in 2014 after a personal scandal. Now, first-time candidate Grant Starrett is trying to beat him in 2016
Rep. Scott DesJarlais looks like an easy target for a primary challenge, but the candidates who run against him don't want to spell out exactly why. Next year, that task falls to a challenger with an unusual profile: a 27-year-old, uber-connected Republican making his first bid for public office.
That's Grant Starrett, whose recent campaign launch earned praise from well-known conservative pundits like RedState's Erick Erickson, National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, and Power Line's Paul Mirengoff. Ted Cruz's pollster, former Republican National Committee staffers, and conservative activists joined an eye-catching collection of people tweeting about a young, first-time candidate.
Starrett has motive, means, and opportunity to win a congressional seat, though. He's made allies across Republican politics who insist he'll be a formidable campaigner and fundraiser. And DesJarlais, a physician and third-term Tennessee Republican, has faced political trouble since decade-old divorce proceedings became public in late 2012, detailing sexual relationships with patients and coworkers—some of whom he urged to have abortions.
Last year, though, DesJarlais looked down and out but managed a 38-vote primary victory over GOP state Sen. Jim Tracy, whose campaign stressed "integrity" but never explicitly went after DesJarlais's ethical issues and antiabortion hypocrisy in public, instead doing so via a low-profile targeted mail campaign. (Tracy has said he's considering running again.) Critics say that cost him the race, but it's a delicate issue Starrett will have to navigate in his first year as a candidate.
Starrett does have campaign experience, though: He was the chairman of Students for Mitt Romney in 2008—when he raised more than $200,000 for the campaign as a college student, according to a 2009 interview with David Frum—and worked for Romney's campaign again in 2012 as a coalitions coordinator. Starrett has also served in roles at the Republican National Committee, in Congress, and as president of a group that worked to unseat three Tennessee Supreme Court justices last year.
"I would not, if I were his rival, take his lack of elective office to mean he's naïve," Ponnuru toldNational Journal. "I think they will be surprised at how effective he is."
Erickson, who called Starrett "my good friend" and "a constitutional conservative," wrote on RedState that Starrett "would be an outstanding member of the Freedom Caucus," the new House group formed this year by members who didn't think the Republican Study Committee remained conservative enough.
In announcing his campaign last week, Starrett made a passing reference to the fact that DesJarlais was the only member of Tennessee's congressional delegation who wasn't endorsed by National Right to Life, but he otherwise criticized DesJarlais for votes against balanced budgets and on other fiscal issues. When asked how much Starrett's campaign would call attention to DesJarlais's personal issues, spokesman Mark Braden said in a statement that the campaign will focus on how DesJarlais's "liberal voting record in Washington does not add up to his rhetoric when he is back in the district."
Former Tennessee GOP chair Robin Smith said that unlike Tracy, Starrett is conservative enough to run to DesJarlais's right across many issues. DesJarlais criticized Tracy's positions on hot-button primary issues like taxes and Common Core en route to his upset reelection in 2014.
Already, DesJarlais has a clear critique of Starrett: that he is a carpetbagger who "moved to Tennessee to buy a congressional district" and has "no ties" to the area, according to DesJarlais spokesman Robert Jameson. Starrett grew up in Southern California and graduated from Stanford University, after which he moved to Tennessee and went to law school at Vanderbilt University.
And while Starrett might have a thick Rolodex, it doesn't do much to refute the claim that he's an outsider in a conservative rural district. Ponnuru and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Power Line publisher Joe Malchow, who have publicly praised Starrett, both said they met him in California when he was still studying at Stanford.
(Malchow's response to the carpetbagger criticism: "He's been talking about Tennessee since the day I met him. He walked around campus in cowboy boots" at Stanford.)
Yet while DesJarlais's scandal will be two years further behind him by the time the 2016 primaries roll around, he likely has more to fear from a campaign trading harsh negative contrasts. Taking advantage of DesJarlais's personal issues without coming off as hostile will require finesse, Smith said. But it's an unusual opportunity for an unusual congressional challenger in 2016.