Early Trump Backer DesJarlais Wins GOP Congressional Primary

Rep. Scott Desjarlais R-Tenn leaves a closed-door meeting with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Washington. ( )
AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

NASHVILLE, Tennessee–Representative Scott DesJarlais, one of the first members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump, defeated a well-financed challenge from 28-year-old Grant Starrett in the GOP primary in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District on Thursday.

David French, who was urged by Bill Kristol to run for president under a third party “Never Trump” banner, endorsed Starrett in his National Review column on Tuesday and  called DesJarlais “a disaster of a Congressman.”

First elected in 2010, DesJarlais is the fifth most conservative member of the House of Representatives this session, as rated by Heritage Action Scorecard.

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, DesJarlais beat Starrett 52 percent to 43 percent. For DesJarlais, who won a 2014 primary challenge from State Senator Jim Tracy by less than 100 votes, the nine percent margin over Starrett was not a nail-biter.

The district stretches over sixteen counties extending from the suburbs just south of Nashville to the suburbs north of Chattanooga. DesJarlais won all but two counties–Bradley County in suburban Chattanooga, and the adjacent Meigs County.

The publicly pro-life congressman ran into trouble early his first term when news broke that he had encouraged his ex-wife to get two abortions, and had conducted numerous affairs prior to winning office.

Ever since, each of his campaigns have been defined by this issue of personal morality.

Nonetheless, his strongly conservative voting record and his pattern of consistently staying in touch with local Tea Party groups have helped him win each primary and general election.

This time, he was outspent more than two to one by his opponent.

DesJarlais raised $548,000 up to July 15.

His opponent, Starrett, raised over $1.2 million for his campaign, up to July 15, most of it donated from out of state sources, included his wealthy family in California. He personally loaned his campaign more than $475,000.

Starrett also secured the endorsement of several prominent conservative personalities, as National Review’s French, who lives in the 4th Congressional District, chronicled:

I know Starrett. I met him when he worked with Mitt Romney in 2012 and again when he was a conservative activist at Vanderbilt Law School. He’s a conservative, he’s intelligent, he has far more political experience than most people twice his age, and — critically — he’s a person of energy and integrity. Conservatives from Mark Levin to Erick Erickson to National Review’s own Ramesh Ponnuru have lined up to argue that Starrett would be vast improvement over DesJarlais.

In contrast to DesJarlais, Starrett endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP presidential primary.

Starrett’s personal resume is thin.

Born and raised in California, he attended Stanford University, graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, and almost immediately set his sights on finding a congressional district in Tennessee from which to run for office.

Starrett purchased a house in Murfreesboro, one of the largest cities in the district, in 2015, and listed a recent job there as an employee of a California real estate company owned by a friend of his father’s.

After clinching the victory, DesJarlais had few kind words for his vanquished young opponent.

“Despite my opponent spending nearly $2 million trying to distort my conservative voting record, the people of the 4th District know I will always fight for Tennessee values and principles,” DesJarlais told the Murfreesboro based Daily News Journal Thursday evening.

Starrett was cordial but unyielding in turn.

“I just called to congratulate Congressman DesJarlais, and I wish him the best in his work as a Representative for our district,” Starrett said in his concession statement.

“We waged a vigorous campaign of ideas about the future of this country: talking about reforming welfare, rebuilding our military, and fighting for life,” Starrett said in his concession statement.

“We spoke with tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors face to face at their doorsteps and in their living rooms over the course of this campaign, and I’m grateful for their prayers, support, and vote of confidence to be their next Congressman. While it was not enough, I’m proud of our campaign, and I’m incredibly grateful for everyone involved,” he added.

In other Tennessee Congressional GOP primary races on Thursday, incumbent Diane Black easily defeated former State Rep. Joe Carr in the 6th Congressional District, 63 percent to 32 percent.

In the hotly contested 8th Congressional District race to replace retiring Rep. Steve Fincher, former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff defeated Memphis physician and radio station magnate George Flinn by a 27 percent to 23 percent margin in a field of a dozen candidates. Flinn, a perennial candidate, financed almost all of his estimated $2.8 million campaign through a personal loan.

In one state legislative race of interest, retired Army Colonel Sam Whitson crushed incumbent State Rep. Jeremy Durham 79 percent to 14 percent.

Durham suspended his campaign in July after an Ad Hoc Committee of the Tennessee House of Representatives released an investigative report conducted by Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery that “detailed numerous inappropriate interactions Durham had with women in the Legislature or as a result of his position in the Legislature.” 


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