Ethics investigations become factor in battle for control of House, Senate

Ethics probes have become a factor in the fight for control of Congress. 

Democrats are fighting to keep control of the Senate in a difficult cycle in which they are defending more seats than Republicans. 

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So it was unwelcome news for the party this week when it was announced that Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), a candidate for the Senate in a competitive race, is facing an investigation into whether she used her position to benefit her husband's medical practice. 

Berkley represented one of the best chances for Democrats to take a seat from Republicans. If she defeats GOP Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), it would make the Republican effort to win control of the Senate much more difficult. But Berkley's road will be tougher with the ethics probe in the spotlight.

A similar story is unfolding in the House, though the roles there are somewhat reversed. 

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she thinks Democrats can once again make her Speaker by winning control of the lower chamber, and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has acknowledged there's a chance Republicans could lose their majority. 

Ethics probes could play a role here too, as at least five congressmen — four of them Republicans — are facing scrutiny. While the chance of Republicans losing the House seems remote, the ethics issues are a problem and a worry. 

Republican Reps. Vern Buchanan (Fla.), David Rivera (Fla.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.) and Jim Renacci (Ohio) are all being dogged by ethics issues. So is Democratic Rep. John Tierney (Mass.).

The cases aren't dominating the headlines like last year's sexting scandal involving Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who was forced out of office. And none seem to represent a turning point in the fight for control of Congress, as the allegations against disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), accused of sending inappropriate texts to House pages, did in 2006. 

Still, this cycle's crop of allegations have put some otherwise safe seats in play. 

The good news for House Republicans is that while more of them than Democrats are facing ethics troubles this cycle, most of the GOP members retain the advantage in their races, often because their districts tilt Republican or because their opponents have struggled to capitalize on their problems.

In addition, this cycle's ethics cases involve complicated allegations about financial wrongdoing — not sex. As a result, they're less likely to generate headlines. 

“Ethics issues related to sex, visuals and that kind of thing — those are the real blockbusters," said Mary Boyle, communications director at the liberal-leaning government watchdog Common Cause. "The ethics allegations that deal with complicated financial issues … they don’t dominate a race as much.

“We live in a TV-dominated visual world. The average person’s eyes linger on a website for a few seconds. There has to be instant impact, and some of these situations aren’t like that, they’re harder to translate," she added. 

Given the state of the national economy, Boyle added that localized corruption and ethics issues held less of a focus for voters.

“We have a terrible economy; people are out of work; we’re still at war. That background can lower the impact of some of this other stuff. It’s easy to change the conversation,” she said.

That's of little consolation to members under the ethics microscope, but it could ease the minds of House GOP and Senate Democratic leaders hoping to retain control of their chambers. 

Here are some details on the challenges for each of the races — and how the lawmakers are handling the allegations:

Berkley's opponent Heller is already on the air blasting her over the issue. Berkley's campaign was quick to respond with its own ad pointing out the investigation was triggered by a complaint from the Nevada Republican Party. Her campaign also points out that the state’s entire delegation, including Heller, had fought to keep open the kidney dialysis center with which her husband’s company had business ties.

The issue is unlikely to become the central focus of the campaign, though it certainly hurts her in a very close race that is likely to be decided by a few percentage points. The Hill rates this race a “toss-up.”

Buchanan caught a break this week when the House Ethics Committee dismissed some of the charges against him, saying he’d made mistakes in reporting his income rather than knowingly violated House rules. But the most serious charges against the National Republican Congressional Committee finance chairman are still pending: that his companies might have improperly reimbursed employees who contributed to his campaigns and that they claimed improper tax deductions.

The FBI and IRS are also investigating Buchanan, and he’ll have to testify later this month in a suit he brought against a former business partner who has testified that the congressman intentionally broke campaign finance laws.

Buchanan has suffered a slew of damaging headlines both in his district and nationally, and faces a competent opponent in former Florida state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D), who announced Thursday he’d raised a respectable $380,000 in the last three months for the race. But Buchanan is one of the richest members of Congress and has already reserved $4 million in airtime for the fall campaign. His Tampa Bay-based district also leans Republican. The Hill rates this race “lean Republican.”

Rivera is also facing a slew of investigations — from the FBI, IRS and House Ethics Committee — into whether he filed false tax returns and intentionally evaded paying his taxes.

The investigations have done serious damage to his campaign — other Republicans have avoided appearing with him and his fundraising has cratered, leaving him with just $180,000 in the bank (and holding $150,000 in debt) at the end of March.

But his south Florida district leans Republican and Democrats had to scramble to find a candidate to challenge him after their initial choice, state Rep. Luis Garcia (D), dropped out of the race after ripping both the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Now businesswoman Gloria Romero Roses and 2010 nominee Joe Garcia (D) are facing off for the nomination. Both got late starts, weren’t their party’s first choice and have to invest their limited resources on the primary rather than save them for the fall in the expensive district. The Hill rates the race “lean Republican,” despite Rivera’s problems.

Grimm faces an ongoing investigation from the FBI into whether his fundraising tactics broke the law. In March, The New York Times reported that Grimm and the Israeli assistant to an influential local rabbi pressed the rabbi’s congregants for cash donations well above the legal limits.

But the district leans Republican and Democrats failed to recruit their top two candidates against Grimm, and eventually settled on former actor Mark Murphy, who has struggled mightily to get his campaign off the ground, has raised very little money, and resorted to touting an internal poll that showed him down 15 points in early July. The Hill rates this race a “toss-up.”

Renacci is not accused of any wrongdoing himself, but the FBI is investigating whether the head of a company whose employees gave him $90,000 illegally coerced them to do so and reimbursed them for the donations, breaking campaign finance law.

Renacci has yet to return the contributions, unlike Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who also received a substantial sum from the company’s employees for his Senate bid.

This is unlikely to be a major component of the campaign. But as in Berkley’s race, Renacci is facing a tough battle against fellow Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), and if she can move even a few votes from Renacci on this issue it could be the difference in a tight campaign. The Hill rates the race a toss-up.

Tierney has no pending investigations, but his family is giving him some major headaches. Tierney’s wife and brothers-in-law were involved in an illegal gambling operation, and one of them alleged in late June that Tierney knew all about it.

The congressman issued a fiery response, pointing out in an early July press conference that that same relative had claimed until a week earlier that he was innocent.

Tierney sits in a heavily Democratic district, but one that Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) did well in during his 2010 win. Brown will be working hard to turn out Republicans in the state once again, and Tierney’s opponent, the centrist, openly gay Richard Tisei (R), is running a strong campaign and raising money at a quick pace. The Hill rates this race “lean Democratic.”