'House of Scandal' haunts GOP

Greg Nash

The House Republican “Scandal caucus” isn’t backing down, and their defiance now threatens to hurt their party at-large.

Republican Reps. Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.) and now, Vance McAllister (La.) have all resisted calls to resign and are running for reelection anyway. In some cases, their defiance jeopardizes the GOP’s hold on their seats, but they’re all proving to be a stench to the party’s brand.

Their persistence provides easy fodder for Democrats grappling for a message to give them the upper hand as they pursue the improbable task of picking up 17 seats in a difficult political climate. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already launched a standalone site outlining the GOP’s “House of Scandal” earlier this year, after the news of Grimm’s criminal indictment on 20 counts came out, and DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin said they won’t let that message drop.

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“Republican leadership promised zero tolerance but instead has taken zero action to deal with their members’ seemingly endless ethics problems,” Schwerin said in an email. “With the scandals piling up, voters can clearly see that House Republicans care more about staying in power than in governing responsibly.”

On an individual level, they cause varying degrees of harm to the GOP’s chances in their respective districts.

Grimm’s bid is perhaps most problematic for Republican after he was indicted on 20 federal criminal counts, including mail fraud, perjury, and employing illegal immigrants at a Manhattan restaurant he once owned. 

In the competitive Staten Island district, his severely crippled candidacy that’s all but been abandoned by the national GOP is all but certain to hand the race to Democratic nominee Domenic Recchia.

Recchia hasn’t knocked Grimm for his criminal indictment on 20 counts on the campaign trail, but he largely doesn’t need to — these scandals hang like an albatross around the lawmakers’ necks.

Democrats and other challengers to embattled Republicans run the risk of prompting backlash by harping too hard on scandals, without any clear argument as to why a congressman’s personal issues affect his performance in office.

GOP Strategist Chris Bravacos said the real damage comes when candidates tie the two together.

“In the end, campaigns are about the voter not the candidate,” he said. “The candidate has to explain how they’re going to serve the constituents well and serve an agenda. If they can’t describe how the scandal affects [the lawmaker’s] ability to do that, then it’s a challenge.”

Democrats perhaps have a better chance at contesting the race in McAllister’s district, now that he reversed his previous statements about his planned retirement and announced this week he’ll run again.

The video of his kiss with a former staffer that became public just two months ago — which prompted calls for his resignation from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and contradicted his proclaimed emphasis on Christian values — likely still remains fresh in the minds of his constituents.

At the very least, it’s fresh in the minds of the four Republicans who have launched primary challenges against him, and at least one wasn’t shy about raising the issue when McAllister announced his bid this week.

Businessman Harris Brown said the congressman “brought great embarrassment” to the state and district with his personal issues in a statement out after McAllister announced his reelection bid. He said on Thursday that he came right out about it because he wanted to “clear the air on that.”

“It’s what everybody had been wanting to say but hadn’t said — I don’t think the congressman’s actions have helped us in any way down here in Louisiana,” said Brown. 

While McAllister’s district also leans red, Democrats believe they have a shot with the state’s jungle primary system, which pits all candidates, regardless of party, against each other on election day. If McAllister and a Democratic candidate — which has yet to announce, but is expected to soon — make it to the December runoff, Democrats see a path to victory.

“Certainly having another Republican improves our chances,” Kirstin Alvanitakis, communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, told The Hill earlier this week when he announced.

Right before Election Day 2012, DesJarlais defied calls to resign after damning details surrounding a messy divorce and abortions he encouraged his mistresses and an ex-wife became public. While it undermined his image as a family-values, anti-abortion lawmaker, he won reelection in the heavily Republican district, but now he faces a half-dozen primary challengers, and one Democrat.

Even still, there’s little chance of his deep-red district flipping, even if he wins his primary — as a poll out last week from a group backing him indicated he would even with the scandal. 

Republicans dismiss any chance that the Scandal Caucus will come to stand for the GOP on a broader level. They say most voters don’t pay attention to lawmakers outside of their own districts, and, as former National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Patru said, scandals only move voters at the margins.

“The focus on ethics may have a marginal impact, but barring something really explosive, it likely won’t have much impact on the larger political dynamic,” he said.

And Democrats aren’t entirely unblemished themselves. In response to the party’s attacks, the NRCC has pointed to Democratic lawmakers facing scandals of their own, as well as the controversies dogging the Obama Administration.

"Democrats are the ones who have become the party of scandals that are impacting peoples lives -- from IRS targeting to Benghazi — and Americans know that Republicans are the only ones who will get answers and hold this administration accountable,” said NRCC spokesman Dan Scarpinato.

As Bravacos put it, no party is immune from such attacks.

“Unfortunately, there are more than enough scandals to go around,” he said.