When running for Congress in a district that includes the poorest county in the state and one where nearly a quarter of the population is receiving some form of government assistance, most political advisors would tell a candidate to steer clear from welfare and entitlement reform.
Grant Starrett is having none of this.
Instead, the 28-year-old is campaigning hard on reducing government dependency and out-of-control federal spending.
Starrett wants to become one of the youngest members of Congress by betting the voters of Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District will look past his age and relative inexperience and reward him for the courage to take on tough issues and stand on principled conservatism in a reliably Republican district.
But before Starrett can claim a seat in the people’s house, he will need to defeat Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Desjarlais in the August 4 Republican primary. Desjarlais defied the odds when he was narrowly reelected by just 38 votes in the 2014-midterm elections despite revelations of infidelity and accusations that he encouraged multiple women (including his first wife) to have abortions. Desjarlais had run on a pro-life and pro-family platform during his campaign in 2010.
After Desjarlais survived that political firestorm two years ago, some are wondering why anyone would presume to challenge the incumbent Republican physician this time around.
Some big names in conservative circles say that if anyone can do it, Starrett can. Among the conservative thought leaders Starrett has impressed so far include former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, nationally syndicated radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, RedState co-founder Erick Erickson and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. Starrett, Gingrich told Opportunity Lives, is “the kind of thoughtful leader that will focus on solving problems.”
But it’s not just conservatives who believe Starrett can unseat Desjarlais. Stuart Rothenberg, the well-respected political analyst, has said that this is a “serious race” and the Washington Examiner recently wrote that Starrett is a “candidate to watch.”
And at a time when Americans are not only upset with the political class, but also hungry for solutions and ideas to tackle major obstacles to living out the American Dream, Starrett is offering more than just lip service.
Starrett is seen as a serious contender in part because of his ability to raise money — especially for a first-time candidate. Tommy Schultz, Starrett’s campaign manager, tells Opportunity Lives that the campaign has raised close to $1 million to date.
Perhaps part of Starrett’s success in making this a competitive Republican primary is that he is avoiding personal attacks and has avoided bringing up Desjarlais’ past scandals. “I am trying not to get into the 50 Shades of Desjarlais,” Starrett told The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, Instead, he wants to keep the campaign focused on the issues and presenting conservative-oriented solutions, including replacing Obamacare with a free-market plan that would actually reduce healthcare premiums.
At a time when Americans are hungry for solutions to help them live the American Dream, Starrett is offering more than just lip service
And although Starrett may be staying away from personal attacks, he is not avoiding hitting the incumbent hard for his support for expanding food stamps. Instead of encouraging work as a way to escape poverty, Starrett says that DesJarlais has been voting with President Barack Obama to pass a $700 billion food stamp bill.
“Food stamps penalize marriage and encourages broken families,” Starrett says. As proof that this tough love message is resonating, Grant cites a story on his Facebook page of a voter whose daughter got hooked on drugs and came to rely on the government for assistance. She saw no reason to clean up her act because then she would lose her benefits.
“The average person on food stamps is on the program for eight years!” Starrett told Opportunity Lives. “This isn’t temporary. This is a lifestyle that robs recipients of dignity, creativity, and meaning.”
To make the case on policy, Starrett is citing his Christian faith arguing that the breakdown of the family is a moral crisis and one that will require the church to “demonstrate leadership.” Among those in the district that are open to Starrett’s message include Pastor Ron Stoltzfus of Lighthouse International Church. “Grant would serve the district well because he is an honest conservative Christian that will not be easily manipulated by the entrenched special interests of Washington,” he said.
In an election year that has been anything but conventional, perhaps the people of Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District will take a chance in electing an ambitious Millennial promising to confront some of our country’s thorniest issues head-on.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.