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What One Tennessee Congressional Race Says About The Rise of Donald Trump

A canvasser for Grant Starrett looks on as U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais speaks to activists at the Rutherford County Republican Party's annual picnic.
Chas Sisk
/
WPLN
A canvasser for Grant Starrett looks on as U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais speaks to activists at the Rutherford County Republican Party's annual picnic.

Hear the radio version of this story.

If there is one politician who's made a career out of railing against Washington, it's U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais.

"A lot of people have just given up on Washington," DesJarlais told the crowd of several dozen GOP activists gathered early last week for the Rutherford County Republican Party's annual picnic. "And in a way, you can't blame them. They don't listen. They're out of touch. And, you know, they don't seem to care about us anymore."

And that's why the South Pittsburg Republican says he's so much a fan of Donald Trump.

Trump's outsider persona and bold talk has energized voters over the past year — though many people thought Republicans would turn away from a man whose life has been tabloid fodder for decades.

But Trump's victory didn't surprise DesJarlais. His success has also shown that voters have an appetite for unconventional candidates.

"He's different in a way," DesJarlais says. "I had people who couldn't believe I'd support him since I'm considered very conservative and they'd say, 'How could you say Donald Trump is a conservative?' And I say, I don't know that I can.

A banner over the baked goods table at the Rutherford County Republican Party picnic.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN
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WPLN
A banner over the baked goods table at the Rutherford County Republican Party picnic.

"But I think he's a problem solver, and I'll take that any day over what we've been dealing with in Washington."

DesJarlais endorsed Trump back in February, becoming one of the first people in Congress to do so, and he's been a steadfast supporter ever since, working with Trump and his senior advisers to bring along holdoutswithin the Republican Party.

At first, DesJarlais might seem to be an odd partner for Trump. The Tennessee congressman lacks Trump's bombast, and the two differ on many points of policy.

But they still have a lot in common. Like Trump, DesJarlais ran for high political office without any prior political experience. Like Trump, he's faced resistance from the GOP establishment.

And like Trump, DesJarlais has done well with religious voters despite a messy past. Trump has had two divorces play out in the public eye. DesJarlais has his own failed marriage, which includes two abortions and an affair with a patient.

Both men's success shows Republican voters just don't seem to care about that.

"I think we're all imperfect beings. We've all been sinners in our lives," says DesJarlais, citing Trump, one-time prospective vice presidential nominee Newt Gingrich and former President Bill Clinton.

"If there was ever an election cycle to run with baggage, this may be the one."

By winning past elections despite his baggage, DesJarlais has in a way foreshadowed Trump. And just as the businessman is preparing to accept the Republican nomination for president, DesJarlais has a good chance of again winning the GOP nomination to Congress.

DesJarlais faces three opponents in the Republican primary, but his stiffest competition comes from a 28-year-old lawyer named Grant Starrett. (Former Commerce Department staffer Erran Persley and lawyer Yomi Faparusi are the other two candidates.)

Grant Starrett, in jeans, waits with campaign manager Tommy Schultz before speaking last week at a candidates forum in McMinnville.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN
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WPLN
Grant Starrett, in jeans, waits with campaign manager Tommy Schultz before speaking last week at a candidates forum in McMinnville.

Starrett has pledged not to criticize DesJarlais for his past. Instead, Starrett's attacking DesJarlais's record, hoping to puncture the congressman's reputation as a maverick.

"I think he's been terribly inconsistent over the course of his time in Washington," Starrett says, "and I think the facts speak for themselves."

Starrett faults DesJarlais for approving food stamp legislation in exchange for farm aid, and he says the congressman's hard line on other spending has damaged the country.

"He's voted for $700 billion in food stamps. He's voted for hundreds of millions of dollars in military cuts, and his beliefs don't align with the district."

Starrett has plenty of money behind him, $1.2 million. It's allowed him to launch a barrage of television, radio and online ads.

In those ads Starrett refers to himself as a "faithful conservative," an apparent reference to his Christian beliefs, and says voters have been "betrayed" by DesJarlais.

DesJarlais responds that Starrett is trying to buy the congressional seat, noting he grew up in California and didn't arrive in Tennessee until law school.

Some voters have been receptive to Starrett's pitch. Back at the Rutherford County GOP picnic, Glenn Taylor is chatting with a field worker for the challenger.

A third-generation Republican from Murfreesboro, Taylor's leaning toward voting for Starrett, for the same reasons he's choosing Trump.

"You've got to see who's going to be the strongest, and who you think can lead this district and go to Washington and get rid of the Washington hierarchy," says Taylor.

DesJarlais, left, chat with an activist at the Rutherford County GOP picnic.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN
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WPLN
DesJarlais, left, chat with an activist at the Rutherford County GOP picnic.

But DesJarlais's supporters, like Rutherford County School Board member Lisa Moore, are just as certain that he's the best candidate to help Trump shake up Washington.

"Contrary to some of the things that I think are being said in the press and in this campaign, he does have a conservative voting record," says Moore. "And, he's done a lot."

Moore says she hadn't given much thought to any similarities between Trump and DesJarlais, but she left the GOP picnic clutching two Trump yard signs.

A clear indication she plans to vote for both.

Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons