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Old Divorce File Riles Tennessee

Republican Scott DesJarlais, who is challenging Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) in Tennessee’s 4th district, was involved in a bitter divorce a decade ago in which his ex-wife accused him of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse, according to a series of court motions obtained by Roll Call this week.

DesJarlais’ campaign on Wednesday called the accusations in the motions false and “baseless” and said the documents have only surfaced because Davis is running scared with less than two months before Election Day.

The documents, filed by an attorney for Susan DesJarlais in Tennessee Chancery Court, paint a disturbing picture of Susan and Scott DesJarlais’ relationship in the months before their 2001 divorce.

In a motion filed in November 2000, Susan DesJarlais sought to obtain sole possession of the couple’s home and claimed she was forced to leave the residence when her husband’s behavior “became violent and threatening.”

In that document, Susan DesJarlais accused her former husband of “dry firing a gun outside the Plaintiff’s locked bedroom door, admission of suicidal ideation, holding a gun in his mouth for three hours, an incident of physical intimidation at the hospital; and previous threatening behavior … i.e. shoving, tripping, pushing down, etc.”

In another court document from February 2001, Susan DesJarlais asked that her husband’s visitation rights with their child be limited after he allegedly showed up at her apartment complex on Valentine’s Day and began harassing her to the point that she called the police.

“These one-sided accusations from a decade-old divorce are all false and the court ruled there was no validity to any of them,” DesJarlais campaign manager Brent Leatherwood said in a statement Wednesday. Leatherwood noted that neither motion was addressed by the court in the final decree of divorce that was issued in July 2001 and that neither party was named by the court as being at fault.

A follow-up order from September 2001 obtained by Roll Call found Susan DesJarlais to be in contempt of court for verbally abusing and cursing Scott DesJarlais in the presence of their child.

“For them to sling this kind of mud shows how desperate they are to obscure Rep. Davis’s support for Pelosi’s job-killing agenda that has hurt so many Tennesseans,” Leatherwood said. “His voting record of late signals that he’s strayed far from his Tennessee roots, and the gutter campaign he’s running further proves that he’s just another Washington politician willing to go to any lengths to hold on to power.”

Leatherwood said the 4th district campaign wouldn’t be about personal attacks but about “the problems facing America and how we’re going to solve them.”

But the documents add more detail to an issue that has already become fodder on the campaign trail.

Last week, the Davis campaign circulated a “campaign update” that listed several reasons Tennesseans will be unable to trust DesJarlais. Among them was his repeated petitions to the Chancery Court to have his child support payments lowered during and after his divorce.

Contacted Wednesday about the latest documents, Davis campaign manager Justin Wallin called DesJarlais’ ex-wife’s allegations of spousal abuse “very serious and disturbing.”

“In the 4th Congressional district, people expect more than lip service about family values,” Wallin said.

Democrats seem happy to make the race a character debate between DesJarlais, a physician and political newcomer, and the four-term Congressman.

“Tennessee families are going to have to seriously consider Scott DesJarlais’ ability to serve in Congress after this alarming news about his character and values,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson said Wednesday.

In such a Republican-friendly environment, Democrats are wary that their somewhat secure hold on the seat could slip away late in the campaign.

The 4th district is socially conservative, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won it by a 30-point margin in the 2008 presidential race. This cycle, Davis has been a relatively weak fundraiser for an incumbent, and GOP strategists say his vote for the controversial stimulus bill has given Republicans a key campaign issue to tie the Congressman to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But Davis has worked hard in his four terms to cultivate the image that he’s a centrist who has stuck to his socially conservative roots. This cycle, the Blue Dog Democrat has earned endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life.

Davis may also have benefitted from the fact that during the recruiting phase of the cycle, the 4th district was generally viewed to be out of reach for Republicans, especially after a pair of juicy open-seat opportunities opened up in the Volunteer State and became the focus of state and national party leaders.

DesJarlais, who has been in the race since last summer, has never been touted as a top recruit by the national party and even today sits on the lowest rung of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s three-tier candidate recruitment program. But an increasingly favorable political environment has pushed most political pundits to move the 4th district onto the 2010 Congressional playing field.

This week, DesJarlais released an internal campaign poll conducted by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies on Aug. 10 and 12 that showed him trailing the Congressman 45 percent to 41 percent. That survey of 300 likely voters with a 5.7-point margin of error was dismissed by Davis’ camp. The Congressman released his own survey of 400 likely voters conducted Aug. 24-26, which showed him ahead
51 percent to 40 percent. The margin of error was 4.9 points.

Although Davis had less than $500,000 on hand as of mid-July, the Congressman’s campaign said it expects to spend $850,000 to $1 million on the race over the next seven weeks. With neither national party committee signaling any desire to devote resources to the race and DesJarlais essentially starting from scratch after his early August primary, $1 million worth of spending would give the Congressman a serious leg up. That is unless one of the many well-funded conservative third-party groups that are playing in Congressional contests this cycle decides to level the financial playing field for DesJarlais.

While the NRCC has yet to devote any financial resources to the district, the party quickly came to DesJarlais’ defense Wednesday.

“Davis’ use of one person’s entirely unproven allegations is dirty, desperate and false,” NRCC spokesman Andy Seré said. “It’s also hypocritical. Let’s just say that when it comes to ‘family values,’ Lincoln is the last person who should be casting stones.”

When asked to elaborate, Seré declined to comment.

Davis Chief of Staff Beecher Frasier responded: “It’s outlandish that they would make a statement such as that. For them to say something like this clearly shows that they are just out of touch.”

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