27-Year Old Conservative Challenger Uses Planned Parenthood Against GOP Congressman

Alex Pappas | Political Reporter

“I now recognize the gentleman from Tennessee, Mr. DesJarlais,” said the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during Tuesday’s hearing on Planned Parenthood’s taxpayer funding.

But Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais had no questions for Cecile Richards, the president of the organization who spent the day talking about abortion. DesJarlais told the chairman he would yield his allotted time to another Republican on the committee.

It was an awkward moment for DesJarlais — a pro-life Republican physician who found himself in a damaging scandal in 2012 after it was revealed in old divorce papers that he had urged an ex-wife and a patient with whom he was having an affair to get abortions.

Despite the baggage, DesJarlais won re-election in 2012 and 2014, though by just 38 votes in the last Republican primary.

Running again for re-election in 2016, DesJarlais now faces another significant primary challenge from a well-connected 27-year-old conservative named Grant Starrett.

Starrett’s campaign — while not explicitly using the abortion scandal against DesJarlais — sees an opening to hit him over Planned Parenthood. On Tuesday, the campaign posted a video to YouTube titled: “Scott DesJarlais doesn’t ask a single question of Planned Parenthood.”

“My jaw dropped,” said Tommy Schultz, Starrett’s campaign manager. “Not a single question. This was one of the most important hearings in Congress this year, and Scott DesJarlais chose to sit on the sidelines.”

(A DesJarlais spokesman told the Chattanooga Times Free Press the congressman passed on his chance to ask questions because there “were several Republican women from other committees that asked for time.”)

Asked by The Daily Caller during an interview this week if he plans to make DesJarlais’ scandals a part of the campaign, Starrett replied: “I am focusing on his record. For me that I think that is where he is most vulnerable.”

“I’ll tell you my position,” Starrett said, “which is to say that Planned Parenthood should not receive a single federal dollar because it is a abortion provider, and these videos showed some very questionable practices.”

Starrett, who lives in Murfreesboro and graduated from Stanford and Vanderbilt, would be the youngest sitting congressman if elected. He boasts of support from national conservatives, including radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Erick Erickson.

He shares the same pollster as Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. That pollster, Chris Wilson, wrote in a September memo, obtained by The Daily Caller, that their internal polling shows Starrett within single digits of DesJarlais.

“Earlier this year, Starrett had a low name ID, potentially due to the fact that he has not held elected office; however, after likely voters heard positive and negative messaging for Starrett, the race moved to be within single digits, and is a great place to start for Grant and the campaign,” wrote Wilson.

NEXT PAGE: ‘He Voted For Over $700 Billion In Food Stamps Over The Next 10 Years’

The memo also said Starrett “must be himself: a consistent conservative.” Speaking to TheDC, Starrett said he will argue he is more conservative than DesJarlais.

“I think the biggest one, the thing that has the most visceral impact, is the fact that he voted for over $700 billion in food stamps over the next 10 years,” Starrett said of the incumbent. “And I think that is problematic in a number of ways.”

Asked what he says to those who might think he doesn’t have enough real-world experience to be elected to Congress, Starrett said: “Well, first, I say I’m constitutionally eligible. I can defer to the Founding Fathers as to exactly kind of how we approach these things, and they assigned a specific time period in life that allows people to run for Congress, and more than anybody else I’m inclined to trust their judgment.”

Starrett hails from California, but moved to Tennessee to study law at Vanderbilt. He says his favorite president has always been James K. Polk, a Tennessean. “I hated California. I mean I never wanted to stay there.”

He pushed back on criticism that he’s a carpetbagger, pointing out DesJarlais isn’t from the state either. “I came to Tennessee when I was 21 years old; he came to Tennessee when he was 30 years old.”

“I say on the trail very often, ‘I wasn’t born here, but I will be buried here.'”

Robert Jameson, a spokesman for the DesJarlais campaign, expressed skepticism about the Starrett campaign’s polling memo. “Those that follow campaigns know the oldest trick in the book is the ‘internal polling’ memo. Let me guess, the campaign won’t provide actual numbers?”

“The truth is Grant’s campaign is completely floundering in Tennessee on account that he has absolutely no ties to Tennessee’s Fourth District and is using his parent’s money to simply buy a seat in Congress,” Jameson said.

Added Jameson: “Scott DesJarlais moved to Tennessee in 1991. His wife is from Tennessee. His kids were born in Tennessee. Grant Starrett moved to the Fourth District six months ago.”

*This story has been updated to include comments from the DesJarlais campaign.

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