“Two easy wins now in doubt,” President Donald Trump tweeted Monday of the House seats currently occupied by Republican representatives Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins, both of whom were indicted over the summer — for misappropriating campaign money and insider trading, respectively.
Democrats certainly hope so. Americans have always said they hate dirty politicians. But in one of the stranger turns of Donald Trump’s first midterm elections, Democrats don’t necessarily share the president’s certainty that the type of explicit political corruption that might have brought down a candidate in another year will matter to voters this November.
Take the case of…Donald Trump’s entourage. Trump’s longtime fixer and lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, Trump’s former campaign manager was convicted of bank fraud and tax fraud, and Democrats are trying to take advantage of what some have deemed a “culture of corruption” to boost their electoral prospects in the House.
In Hunter’s Southern California district, his Democratic opponent is trying to make the most of the indictment, turning it into a television ad in which a narrator describes “47 pages of corruption and greed” as images of specific details flash on the screen.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went on the air this week with an ad attacking Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor for what the narrator describes as “a growing political scandal” surrounding fraudulent signatures in his campaign’s effort to get another candidate on the ballot as a spoiler.
DCCC spokesperson Tyler Law cited “the dark cloud of scandal and corruption hanging over [Republicans’] heads,” in a press release Thursday, trumpeting a Cook Political Report change in ratings in that district, and in Iowa’s 1st District, after the House Ethics Committee extended an investigation into Rep. Rod Blum.
Some Democrats are looking to 2006 — the last time Democrats swept to take control of the House in part on a wave of ethics scandals. A Republican was in the White House presiding over an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and high energy prices. And then, that cycle, Duke Cunningham, then a California Republican representative, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from contractors with business before the government. Former Florida Republican representative Mark Foley resigned after he was revealed to have sent sexually inappropriate messages to underage congressional pages. Other Republican House members were forced to explain why they had known about those messages from Foley but hadn’t done anything about them. Tom DeLay, then the Republican majority leader, was indicted for violating campaign finance laws (though Republicans at the time dubbed the prosecution to be politically motivated, and a conviction was eventually overturned). Don Sherwood, a former Pennsylvania Republican representative, settled a lawsuit filed by a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair and who accused him of choking her. Coming off the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in 2005, it was enough to fuel Democrats’ “culture of corruption” message.
And the Democrats picked up 31 seats.
“It’s as if we DVR’d 2006 and we’re hitting play in 2018,” said an optimistic Steve Israel, a former New York representative who chaired the House Democratic campaign arm in 2012 and 2014.
But in a political moment when most voters are already so hardened in their feelings toward Trump — 78% of Republicans say he’s doing a good job as president; 93% of Democrats disapprove — it’s not clear that your basic, indictment-driven corruption charge can make the impression it once did.
Former Democratic representative Chris Carney, who beat Sherwood in 2006, finds it difficult to draw parallels with the year he was first elected.
“There are a lot of interesting comparisons you should be able to make, but they just don’t seem to apply to Trump,” Carney told BuzzFeed News.
“I’m not even sure what scandal is anymore,” he added.
The indictments do at least put two new seats into Democrats’ consideration. Both Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat running against Hunter, and Nate McMurray, the Democrat running for Collins’ seat, attribute a newfound surge in energy in their campaigns to their opponents getting indicted. Democrats outside the district have started paying more attention. Money has flowed in. Campaign events are surprisingly packed.
Hunter’s Southern California district had seemed likely out of reach for Democrats before — Hunter won with 64% in 2016. But Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Democrat challenging Hunter, released an internal campaign poll Monday that showed him tied with Hunter at 46% following the indictment.
Collins’ district is less straightforward because it’s not clear who McMurray will be running against in November. The message against Collins is clear: “You can’t say ‘drain the swamp’ if you’re swimming in it,” McMurray told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. But Republicans have the ability to remove Collins from the ballot as a candidate for Congress — they just have to find another office for him to run for — so McMurray’s opponent might be someone completely different. And it might not be so easy to attach Collins’ scandal to the new Republican candidate. Democrats have said they will sue if Republicans attempt to remove Collins from the ballot as a congressional candidate, contending that there is no legal basis for the removal.
McMurray says his message — one that he acknowledged is getting significantly more attention than it did before Collins was indicted — is one of “economic fairness,” and that the indictment just emphasizes that.
“This is a very blue-collar region, rural, lots of farms, and people who work very hard for a living. And we had a very elitist and just an arrogant man leading us, and it didn’t make any sense,” McMurray said. “He was not one of the people from this region.”
“His indictment for such a corrupt thing has strengthened my message and kind of proven me correct,” he added.
Democrats have had to walk this fine line since the start of the Trump administration. A Republican getting indicted would seem to play to Democrats’ advantage — but so would the president’s former lawyer admitting to paying off a porn star to hide an affair, and that has slipped by if not quietly then certainly without major electoral repercussions. There’s a reason many Democratic candidates are sidestepping such issues in favor of talking about health care and taxes.
“Clearly, the steady drumbeat of scandal has set the national mood and continues to be a problem for Republicans. But we’ve seen that health care and the economy are the most personal issue for voters,” said DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly. “Ultimately, it’s not an either-or situation — candidates are talking about cleaning up the culture of corruption so that they can deliver on increasing wages and lowering health care costs.”
Polling conducted last month by End Citizens United, which has sought to persuade candidates of the effectiveness of a message about corruption surrounding money in politics, found “political corruption” to be the third-highest priority for voters, following “health care” and “jobs and the economy.” For independent voters, it was the top priority. The group has shared the polling with candidates.
Those candidates that do talk about corruption are doing so delicately. Campa-Najjar’s ad about Hunter’s indictment is carefully calibrated so as not to cast aspersions on the district’s voters for sending Hunter to Washington, DC, in past elections.
“We didn’t know, but now we do,” says the narrator. “Every citizen has a responsibility to read this indictment.”
Hunter, said Campa-Najjar in a phone interview with BuzzFeed, “got chewed up and spit out by the ways of Washington,” adding, “He’s just one symptom of a greater epidemic right now going on of corruption.” It’s a careful construction, one that places the blame as much on the system as on Hunter, and one that avoids suggesting voters did anything wrong by supporting him in the past.
The ad and the message are reminiscent of an ad Carney ran against Sherwood. The two were also facing off in a district that heavily favored Republicans — Democrats hadn’t even put up candidates the two cycles before. But Sherwood’s settlement gave Democrats an opening.
The ad featured a Joseph Lech, a self-described Republican who opened the ad saying he had supported Sherwood in the past. But, he said, he could no longer do so in the face of the allegations. The ad flashes images of the civil suit the woman filed against Sherwood, allegations that the man says his daughter called “disgusting.”
“How can I tell her that I support Don Sherwood and feel good about myself?” Lech concludes.
Republicans are skeptical that indictments of a couple members of Congress can amount to a full-scale problem for Republicans now.
“If it’s helpful it’s because it further energizes Democratic voters who were riled up against Donald Trump from day one. I don’t know that it persuades any voters, and it doesn’t appear that it’s going to move any Republican voters,” said Republican consultant Doug Heye.
Democrats have had their own issues this cycle. Former Michigan representative John Conyers reluctantly resigned after BuzzFeed News published documents revealing that he had used official funds to pay settlements to the multiple women who had accused him of sexual harassment. Nevada Rep. Ruben Kihuen opted not to run for reelection after a former campaign staffer accused him of sexual misconduct.
“Democrats are no authority on ethical standards and voters recognize that,” said National Republican Congressional Committee press secretary Jesse Hunt.
One former elected official, whose political career was ended in a scandal, recalled former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition against “defining deviancy down.” Things like the president paying off an adult film actor to stay quiet about an affair, the former official said, came up so casually and with so little concern that it almost “seems to kind of be peripheral to the conversation.”
“We’ve probably defined scandal down,” he said. ●