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Davis may need a life saver in the 4th

Republican Scott DesJarlais, a newcomer whose past is under a microscope in the 4th District.
Republican Scott DesJarlais, a newcomer whose past is under a microscope in the 4th District.
Morrow / file

Democratic U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis unleashed another television ad Sunday referring to Republican opponent Scott DesJarlais' divorce record, the latest bit of evidence that Davis appears to be in trouble in his re-election bid in the 4th District.

The ad features a woman saying that because of Davis' work on domestic violence "lives have been saved." But her comment follows the ad's reference to DesJarlais being abusive to his ex-wife and disrespectful to a police officer trying to help her.

"DesJarlais is out of control," the female voiceover says.

The ad is another production of the Nashville-based Fletcher Rowley Riddle Inc. consulting firm.

Davis launched the on-air back-and-forth several days ago by delving into DesJarlais' divorce records.

After reports in the Washington-based Roll Call and The Chattanooga Times Free Press, Davis' first ad on the subject referred to DesJarlais having a "history of attacks, violent and threatening behavior toward his first wife," and the ad included the line that DesJarlais was found to be "firing an unloaded gun."

That was an apparent reference to DesJarlais, a Jasper doctor, "dry-firing," or pulling the trigger on an unloaded gun, from an account in court documents in the divorce.

The ad prompted DesJarlais to air a response ad where his current wife, Amy DesJarlais, says she knows her husband to be a "good, honest and decent man."

That was followed by a story in The Chattanooga Times Free Press in which DesJarlais referred to an off-duty police officer who was a friend of his ex-wife and involved in the domestic case by likening the officer's involvement to the Dukes of Hazzard television show.

The Davis camp was not amused and released a letter from police chiefs of Manchester and Crossville, along with a former Campbell County sheriff, saying they were "appalled" at the disrepect DesJarlais had shown toward law enforcement and that they didn't appreciate the "joking manner" DesJarlais gave the subject.

The National Republican Congressional Committee got into the act, calling Davis a desperate candidate attacking someone's family and tying Davis to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did its part to echo the attack on DesJarlais.

The latest Davis ad is titled "Lives Saved" and focuses on a woman who's daughter was killed by an abusive husband. The ad says the police report in the DesJarlais case was proof that DesJarlais had been abusive to his ex-wife.

"Because of Lincoln Davis' work on domestic violence, lives have been saved," the woman says.

That may be a reference to Davis' work on domestic violence legislation as a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. But the continued references to DesJarlais' divorce in Davis' ads appear to be as much about the unexpected strength of DesJarlais' candidacy than the issue itself. After all, it's difficult to find references to domestic violence legislation on Davis' congressional campaign Web site.

At one time, Davis looked like a shoo-in for re-election over a no-name, even in a year when the GOP was showing substantial gains. But the dominoes may be falling.

The Cook Political Report recently moved the Davis-DesJarlais race into the "toss up" category after previously giving the Democrat the edge.

If Davis were to fall to a political newcomer, it would be yet another sign that Democrats in the state are facing a problem much bigger than anything they can handle in their own campaigns. Repeated references have been made to the Republican revolution of 1994, but those references are quickly being amended to say this year could be even more dramatic.

A Republican pickup in the 6th District, where Republican Diane Black is expected to defeat Democrat Brett Carter, would finish off what really began with veteran Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon's retirement. The 6th District has long been considered the likeliest loss for the Democrats, maybe the likeliest in the country.

Stephen Fincher, the now famous farmer from Frog Jump, has emerged as the favorite to replace Rep. John Tanner in the 8th District, despite efforts by Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron to say Fincher has broken the law with his campaign financial disclosures.

Now it's Davis feeling the squeeze. His ads hitting DesJarlais are quite different from Davis' earlier ads pointing to his independence from party leaders in Congress. Davis has an attack crew for sure in the Fletcher team, but a look back at what Fletcher Rowley Riddle has to say about its invovlement with Davis in another Republican year, 2004, says a lot.

The firm's Web site notes that Democrat John Kerry had a 15-point loss in Tennessee in 2004 and had trailed by 20 points in the 4th District.

"Our television ads highlighted Congressman Davis' strong values and received the most praise from rank and file voters that we can remember from one commercial," the site says, adding that despite a 16-point Bush margin in the 4th District, Davis won with 55% of the vote in a "Republican-trending" seat.

Democrats are facing a Republican-trending state this year. Thus far, 5th District Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper is still considered in good shape against Republican newcomer David Hall. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen is still considered a sure winner in the Democratic-rich 9th District. But if the Republican trend gives the GOP a sweep in the battle for the majority in the state legislature, Cooper could be done in by redistricting down the road. If all the lines around Cooper are Republican, his district could be carved into a Democratic problem.

No one should be surprised at hard-hitting ads. After state Sen. Douglas Henry linked attorney Jeff Yarbro, his Democratic primary opponent, to the BP oil spill, no candidate is immune from a heavy hit. Henry won. But that ad was clearly as much about Yarbro's strength as about any oil spill. The same could apply to Davis. Nothing can be a sign of trouble like a gritty ad by an incumbent who normally shouldn't be in any trouble at all.


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