Democrat Lenda Sherrell surprised the world of Tennessee politics when FEC reports showed the candidate outraised her opponent Rep. Scott Desjarlais by $253,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter. Perhaps more importantly for the Democrat’s campaign is the sizable cash on hand advantage Sherrell has with less than one month to go before the election. The Sherrell campaign has $234,773 remaining while the Desjarlais campaign has $102,756.
2014 has been a difficult year for Desjarlais, having survived a primary challenge by State Sen. Jim Tracy by only 38 votes of nearly 78,000 cast and was nationally targeted as one of “America’s Worst Congressmen” by liberal comedian and commentator Bill Maher. DesJarlais was targeted because of a series of scandals that came to light in 2012. The scandals were the result of the release of 2001 divorce proceedings that alleged DesJarlais had affairs with six different women, two of which were his patients. Also revealed in the document were allegations that he encouraged his then wife to have two abortions and for a mistress to have one as well. These allegations were thought to be particularly damaging given Desjarlais stance as a pro-life candidate. Additional reports later alleged Desjarlais prescribed painkillers to his mistresses.
What’s important to note is that these revelations came to light after the 2012 elections. In those elections, DesJarlais bested his Democratic opponent by 12 points—a sizable margin, but certainly not a blowout. Since that election, DesJarlais has been berated by Republican and Democratic challengers alike. Adding a cash disadvantage to an already weakened candidacy could make a solid Republican seat somewhat competitive.
Most political observers remain unconvinced a Democrat like Sherrell can win in the 4th District, for good reason. Desjarlais has held the seat since 2011 and won every election by double digit margins. The Cook Partisan Voting Index (a method of measuring the political leanings of congressional districts) of this particular district shows any given Republican will have an 18 point advantage. The race has been perceived as so uncompetitive that there is no publicly available general election polling data to tell us who is ahead. Sherrell has turned this race into a more interesting story, but it remains unclear whether or not she will be truly competitive on election day.