Republican candidates on defensive for using, criticizing bailout funds

Republican candidates across the country are taking heat from Democrats for benefiting from bailout funds even as they decry the law.

The attack line follows previous Democratic charges against incumbent Republican lawmakers who voted against the fiscal stimulus but touted the projects it financed in their districts.

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Democrats are, among other things, attacking one GOP candidate because his wife works for Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage company. Democrats have sought — with mixed success — to connect the dots between the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the private lives of GOP challengers.

Because many Republican candidates come from the business and financial worlds, they are more easily linked to the bailout than Democrats. Many have either worked or lobbied for bailout recipients, while others have taken part in programs like cash-for-clunkers.

Political analyst Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report said the issue affects different candidates in different ways.

“A car dealer who benefited from cash-for-clunkers has a pretty good excuse,” Wasserman said. “Working for a big financial firm could be a problem if the candidate projects some aloofness.”

One of the candidates who has paid the biggest political price thus far fits neither of those categories.

Still, opponents have gotten traction this week by making an issue of Idaho GOP congressional candidate Vaughn Ward’s wife, who works for Fannie Mae.

The media in the state have suggested that Ward’s vehement anti-bailout rhetoric is undercut by the fact that his wife works for a company that got bailout funds. The problem was compounded when it was revealed that Ward has failed to disclose his wife’s assets.

His campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Ward is running for the GOP nomination to face Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho).

Other GOP candidates have more direct ties to the financial industry.

Scott Sipprelle, who made a splash in the first quarter by self-funding $420,000 and raising another $160,000 for his campaign against Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), is a former hedge fund manager and Morgan Stanley executive.

It seems few descriptors could be less desirable to the electorate right now, but Sipprelle has confronted the issue head-on.

In a letter to Holt on Monday, Sipprelle responds to the Democrats’ attacks by casting himself as someone who crusaded against the leadership at Morgan Stanley when he was there in the mid-2000s.

“They’re trying to tar that as somehow being a sleazy, greedy, irresponsible way to make a living,” Sipprelle told The Hill. “If that’s the approach they are going to take, it certainly isn’t going to stick with me.”

Iowa Republican Jim Gibbons says the charges against his work in the financial industry are similarly trumped-up. The former Wells Fargo vice president emphasizes that he was hardly the big-bank executive one might think.

He said he had the executive title even though he was essentially a financial adviser, and that it was left over from before Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia Securities.

“Was I a key decisionmaker at Wells Fargo? Absolutely not,” Gibbons said. “I was a key decisionmaker as an adviser to my clients.”

Delaware GOP congressional candidate Michele Rollins has endured some early attacks from Democrats because it appeared her compensation on the Wilmington Trust Corp.’s board of directors increased after the bailout.

According to Forbes, Rollins made about $20,000 in 2008 and, after the bailout in late 2008, made $93,000 in 2009.

But Rollins told The Hill that she didn’t receive any actual pay bump — just that her compensation from previous years was all delivered at the same time.

“You get $30,000 a year plus some meeting fees, and I just happened to get them all in one year,” she said. “It was some bookkeeping thing on their part, and I’m not even sure how that happened.”

On the Senate side, Democrats have found some success by pointing out that former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) worked for a lobbying firm that lobbied for bailout funds. They have found less traction by pointing out that Nevada GOP Senate favorite Sue Lowden sat on the board of a bank whose parent company sought bailout funds.

Because many leading Republican Senate candidates are coming from other elected positions, it’s mostly about how they voted on the bailout. Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), for instance, is taking plenty of heat in his Senate primary for being a bailout supporter.

But Democratic attacks aren’t being directed solely against those tied to the big bailout in late 2008.

Republicans have recruited car dealers to run in a number of House races, and Democrats have attacked them for taking part in the cash-for-clunkers program, in which the government chipped in for people to buy new cars.

But dealers Tom Ganley and Mike Kelly, who are running in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively, said the program was a failure and that they took part because they had little choice.

“It was not a beneficial thing,” said Ganley, who has self-funded $2 million for a run at Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio). “There was a tremendous peak and then a significant valley after. … At the end of the year, we didn’t sell any more cars.”

Kelly, who is challenging Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), said the attacks are dishonest and that the current administration is “demonizing” hardworking people.

He said whether you come from the financial industry or a local car dealership, the Democrats are out to get you.

“If you’re a banker, you’re a bad guy; if you’re a healthcare insurance worker, you’re a bad guy; if you’re a dealer, you’re a bad guy,” Kelly said. “It’s polarizing, and it’s not effective.”

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