Young Republican Explores Primary vs. Scott DesJarlais

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 10, 2015 · 1:08 PM EDT

Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais was an unlikely survivor in his 2014 Republican primary, but his next electoral challenge may already be on the horizon.

Grant Starrett, a young aide on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, is contacting donors in advance of a potential run in the 4th District, according to a GOP insider.

DesJarlais was first elected in 2010 when he defeated Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Democrat, in the GOP wave. Accusations about DesJarlais having affairs with patients and encouraging a now ex-wife to have an abortion surfaced prior to his 2012 re-election, which he won with 56 percent.

Last cycle, state Sen. Jim Tracy was a credible threat to DesJarlais in the primary, the congressman’s first since the revelations. But Tracy failed to close the deal with Republican voters. DesJarlais portrayed Tracy as too moderate, then the dynamics of the race changed less than a month before the August primary when he revealed he had cancer. DesJarlais won the primary by less than 50 votes.

Starrett, 27, is vice president and special counsel for Lion Real Estate Group, according to his LinkedIn profile, and former president of Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability. The Stanford and Vanderbilt law school graduate worked on coalitions for the Romney campaign in 2012 and was chairman of Students for Mitt in 2008. (Starrett offered his advice to Republicans in a post-election piece in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.)

Against DesJarlais, Starrett would try to bridge the conservative and establishment camps within the Republican Party. Starrett founded the Stanford Conservative Society, was president of the Federalist Society at Vanderbilt and was an early contributor to Texas Republican Ted Cruz in his competitive 2012 GOP Senate primary with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. But Starrett also has a foot in the establishment camp after two Romney campaigns.

It remains to be seen whether the first-time candidate can raise the money necessary to defeat an incumbent. But Starrett could also attract outside help. The Club for Growth just released its scorecard for 2014, and DesJarlais was given the equivalent of an incomplete grade because of missed votes. But the congressman’s 79 percent lifetime rating with the group makes him a potential target.

Starrett is working with general consultant Mark Braden, who is not the prominent GOP attorney. Braden served as campaign manager to Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander in the Tennessee incumbents most recent re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Tracy has made no moves toward running again, but it remains to be seen if other Republicans challenge DesJarlais next year. The congressman likely benefited from a crowded field in 2014 when he won the nomination with 45 percent.