Embattled Shinseki becomes lightning rod in fight for Senate

Greg Nash

Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is becoming a lightning rod in the battle for the Senate.

Democrats
 are trying to distance themselves from the VA chief and scandal, while Republicans are trying to tie Democratic candidates to the controversy.

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Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in what is expected to be the most expensive race in the country this year, called Thursday for Shinseki's head.

Rick Weiland, the underdog Democrat running to try to keep retiring Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) seat, also called for Shinseki to step down, declaring "a single scalp is not nearly enough."

Two endangered Senate Democratic incumbents, meanwhile, stood behind Shinseki, and one saw the GOP pounce. 

“Reports of improper scheduling practices that have resulted in life-threatening delays for our veterans are completely unacceptable, and there must be a full investigation to immediately determine the extent of the problem and hold accountable those responsible, no matter who it is,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.)

Her GOP opponent, state Rep. Thom Tillis, called for Shinseki’s resignation last week and has sought to make it an issue in the race.

On Thursday, his campaign knocked the senator for her initial silence, accusing her of “demonstrating a lack of initiative and willingness to call for action.”

And Tillis himself seized it, suggesting he’d handle things differently if he were in the Senate.

“The President’s lack of urgency and Senator Hagan’s silence are not helping matters. This is not a partisan issue — we cannot afford to wait any longer,” he said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) might have some room on the issue as her most prominent Republican opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy, hasn’t explicitly called for Shinseki to resign either.

"I don't think he should resign, he should fix the problem immediately,” Landrieu told The Hill just off the Senate floor.

But it was Grimes who was the most aggressive of any Democrat, seeking to take the initiative from McConnell.

His campaign issued a statement shortly after she called for Shinseki’s head, commending Grimes for having “joined Sen. McConnell in calling for a change in management at the VA.”

But the Senate Minority Leader had never outright called for the secretary’s resignation to begin with, only suggesting “a change in leadership might be a good step in the right direction.”

Thursday's flurry of GOP statements underscore that Republicans 
see a prime political opportunity in the VA scandal to press incumbents.

On Thursday, one of Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) top GOP opponents, Mike McFadden, slammed him for his “deafening” silence on the VA issue. 

“Secret waitlists and gross mismanagement at the VA have put the lives of our nation’s veterans on the line, yet, Sen. Franken is nowhere to be found,” said McFadden. 

Other candidates hit the same notes as Tillis, suggesting what they’d do differently in office.

“The president better hope I never make it to the Senate,” Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst said in a Wednesday statement, “because if I do, I’m going to be hammering him every single day until I’m convinced that veterans are getting the care they deserve.

In New Hampshire, state party Vice Chairman Jim Coburn called on the state’s entire Democratic congressional delegation to demand Shinseki’s resignation.  All three — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Reps. Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter — are considered vulnerable this cycle, and Shaheen’s likely opponent, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, has already called for Shinseki to step down. 

"Instead of standing up for our fighting men and women, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter and Congresswoman Annie Kuster have stood with President Obama and refused to call for a new Veterans Affairs secretary,” Coburn, himself a veteran, said in a statement.

Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is in a similar boat to Grimes in terms of the contours of her race, in a red state where Obama is toxic, and on Friday she joined those calling for Shinseki to step down.

“It has become increasingly clear that we need new leadership to build confidence, focus and accountability at the VA to fix what is wrong with the agency," Nunn said in a statement. "I hope that General Shinseki will step aside to allow for fresh leadership to tackle these pressing issues and support the veterans that the General is deeply committed to serving.”

Nunn had opened herself to a barrage of GOP attacks when she said at a May 11 debate that she “defer[s] to the president’s judgment about the leadership that will be necessary to ensure that accountability and that transparency.” 

Republicans pounced, with Republican National Committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox saying her “decision to defer to President Obama on the future of embattled Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks volumes about her decision making process. ... It’s clear Michelle Nunn will be nothing more than a rubberstamp to President Obama’s liberal agenda.”

Other Democratic Senate candidates in top races, including West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Democratic approach to the VA scandal is much the same as the party’s approach to issues with ObamaCare: acknowledge problems, and propose fixes. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) hasn’t called on Shinseki to resign either, instead asserting the need to better fund the VA to prevent future such problems.

“If Congress expects the VA to update its systems, streamline the claims process and deliver better care to our veterans, we need to step up and provide them with the resources to do the job,” Begich said in a statement.

But similar to the issues with the ObamaCare rollout, the allegations of mismanagement at the VA are so potentially damaging to Democrats because they play into a narrative Republicans have been hammering for months: that of a feckless Democratic Party, led by a weak president who actively ignores issues within his administration.

Even before most Democrats had weighed in, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was pushing that narrative in its Thursday morning newsletter.

“It's yet another egregious sign of an inept and incompetent government that has been run by Democrats for the last five years,” the committee wrote.

"This is an incredibly important issue to all Americans regardless of political party and Republicans attempting to score political points on the back of our veterans will pay a political price with voters," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky. 

— Alexander Bolton, Vivian Hughbanks and Athena Cao contributed.

— This post was updated at 9:40 a.m.