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Opinion Will voters dump the most scandal-plagued member of Congress?

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, is one of the few members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump. He may be the most ethically compromised member of Congress, which is quite an achievement. In August 2014, The Post reported:

Weeks before the 2012 election, papers from his 2001 divorce were released, and they showed that the former doctor had engaged in sexual relationships with patients, medical center co-workers and a drug company representative. The Chattanooga Times Free Press’s account of the divorce papers noted, “Serving a dual role as doctor and lover, DesJarlais prescribed one patient pain medication and lavished her with an $875 watch and a plane ticket to Las Vegas, records show.” The staunchly antiabortion rights representative also encouraged his ex-wife to get two abortions, and when one of the patients he was seeing said she was pregnant, he also advised that she get an abortion.
If that weren’t enough, during the 2010 campaign, he faced allegations of violent behavior toward his ex-wife, such as dry-firing a gun outside the bedroom door while she was inside.

In 2014, he won his primary in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District by a scant 38 votes, but this time an array of conservative pundits and activists are hoping to knock him out, not only for his numerous ethical lapses but also for backing Trump and inconsistencies in his voting record, including support for green energy subsidies and votes against a balanced budget amendment. This time, they may get their wish, thanks to a credible young challenger.

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Grant Starrett, at 28 years old, would be the youngest member of Congress if elected this year. A graduate of Stanford and of Vanderbilt Law School, he is a real estate lawyer who is experienced in conservative movement politics and multiple campaigns (both of Mitt Romney’s races). In a phone interview, he showed remarkable poise fielding questions on a whole array of issues from immigration (tie H-1B visas to economic need akin to the Australian and Canadian point systems) to entitlement reform. (“It’s not possible to tackle the debt without entitlements,” he says. They take up three-fifths of the budget.”) He voted for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Why run for Congress at an age when most millennials are finding their first “real” jobs? “I’ve worked in local and state politics,” he says. “But most of our problems currently come from the federal government.” Unlike many in the Freedom Caucus who would slash defense in search of a balanced budget, Starrett is a hawk. “The primary obligation of the federal government is national security. I am a believer in projecting American power overseas.” He, however, is thoughtful and nuanced on specific issues. “I have no problem with [Guantanamo]. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you have zero constitutional rights overseas,” he argues. As for American citizens, he is comfortable “sending a drone into a living room” of someone who has taken up arms against the U.S. overseas, but contends some level of due process should be accorded to them. He is amenable to metadata collection but says he is “concerned” about it complying with the Fourth Amendment. He candidly says it is something he wants to look into further.

For now, he is not making an issue of his opponent’s many ethical problems (“50 shades of DesJarlais,” he calls it), on the theory that voters know about his sleazy personal life already. Instead, he argues, “They are already familiar with that, but they may not be so familiar with his record.” He says, “I think he’s an opportunist,” pointing out that DesJarlais started as a moderate, moved far right when the scandal broke and now backs Trump, an anathema to principled conservatives. He cites the incumbent’s votes on “crony capitalism” and vote to increase food stamp spending as evidence of DesJarlais’s lack of consistency.

What is most striking about Starrett, however, is his sober approach. Asked if he is in the “hold down the right flank” club or the “make deals” club, he says, “There is real danger on both sides. If you simply want to hold down the right flank, then you never seek solutions.” However, if deals are your only objective, they may lack conservative content, he says.

On a quick round of questions, he says, Clarence Thomas is his favorite justice; education should devolve back to the states; and there should be an exception for abortion for life of the mother. (On justices, he makes the interesting observation that while now-Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. may have had a more impressive résumé than now-Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the latter turned out to be a more principled conservative.) On the separation of powers he says, “I’m extremely deferential to the president on foreign policy. But on domestic policy Congress is the proper venue for lawmaking. The bureaucracy should not be allowed to go beyond — or even against — congressional intent.” He’d favor a system in which major regulatory rules would require congressional approval.

You would think voters would recognize they can do better than an ethically hobbled incumbent who imagines Trump is fit to be president. If they want a dedicated, energetic conservative — part of a new generation of Republicans — who has thought through major issues, Starrett is available. At some point, when choices are so clear, one can only advise voters that they get the representatives they deserve.