State Sen. Eric Stewart discusses his bid for the 4th Congressional District seat during an Aug. 14, 2012, press conference outside the Rutherford County Courthouse in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais is defending his decision not to participate in a series of debates with his Democratic challenger, contending until Tennessee Sen. Eric Stewart takes a stance on key issues, a meeting would be pointless.
“As you know well, defining your candidacy and building awareness is both difficult and expensive,” DesJarlais said Tuesday in a letter sent to the Stewart camp. “However, taking a firm stand on issues and offering thoughtful solutions is not. I have yet to see you put forth any substantive platform, only empty slogans and negative attacks.”
DesJarlais continued, saying, “While I am open to revisiting the debate question later in the campaign, your lack of clarity on the issues gives me no reason for or basis from which we could currently debate.”
Stewart, who currently represents the 14th District Senate seat in the Tennessee General Assembly, is running against DesJarlais in the 4th Congressional District race.
Prior to this election season, Rutherford County was a part of the 6th Congressional District, which Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black represents. Earlier this year, Rutherford County was reassigned to the 4th District under redistricting.
According to state population data, Rutherford County comprises 37 percent of the newly redrawn 4th District total population, a 5 percent increase compared with the current demographics of the 6th District – meaning voters will likely have a more powerful voice in state and federal elections.
Given the shift in power, both candidates quickly stepped up their campaign efforts after winning the Republican and Democratic nominations in the Aug. 2 primaries.
The letter by DesJarlais came on the same day Stewart announced the launch of www.need4debate.com, an online petition aimed at coercing the first-term congressman to participate in three debates before the November general election.
“I am shocked, but not surprised, DesJarlais does not want to face voters and have a debate over the issues important to people in this district,” Stewart said, during a press conference outside of the Rutherford County Courthouse in downtown Murfreesboro.
In defense of DesJarlais, campaign manager Brandon Lewis countered it is not unreasonable to expect Stewart to put forth a list of issues that he would like to discuss during a debate.
“Stewart has yet to release a meaningful platform of any sort, and he has placed the debate cart before the platform horse,” Lewis said. “We simply challenged him to actually articulate where he stands on key issues like taxes, energy, spending, and who he will vote for in the presidential election.”
During the press conference, Stewart also announced that his campaign is launching a caravan across all 16 counties in the newly redrawn 4th District.
“There are a lot of folks that are new to the 4th District, including all of Rutherford County,” he said. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to look their candidates in the eyes and ask the questions most important to their families and pocketbooks.”
While speaking with the press, Stewart declined to disclose whom he supports in the presidential election, saying, “I will vote for somebody, but I am not telling you either way.”
On Friday, Republican Party leaders quickly seized on the coy remarks, noting it is odd that a member of the Tennessee Democratic Party would refuse to publicly support President Barack Obama.
“How can Stewart expect to have a serious conversation about the big issues facing our country if he cannot even tell voters whether he will vote for his party’s nominee in November?” said Adam Nickas, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Despite holding an elected seat in the General Assembly, Stewart has remained largely mum on other major issues as well, he said.
“Just last year, Stewart voted against the Tennessee Health Freedom Act,” Nickas said. “As we learn more about Obama taking $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund in order to pay for the (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), Stewart remains suspiciously silent on his support for the health care bill.”
Despite the refusal and subsequent attacks from the Republican Party, Stewart insists that he is still willing to debate DesJarlais.
“Some candidates believe they can buy votes with television advertising,” Stewart said. “I believe that with hard work, a firm handshake, and looking someone in the eyes, I will be able to earn the votes of the working families from the 4th District.”