By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/13/12 10:00 AM EDT
Both Republicans and Democrats have doubled down on attacks on candidates facing allegations of corruption and misconduct, indicating that these could be potent issues giving otherwise safe lawmakers a tough reelection fight.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) launched its “10 Most Corrupt Democrats” campaign last week, an effort to highlight one Democratic candidate facing charges of corruption per week leading up the election.
“There’s such an abundance of Democratic candidates running this cycle that have ethics issues that we can’t even keep up. We have more than one a week that we could do,” she said.
But Democrats, too, are making misconduct an issue this cycle with their House of Scandal campaign, which showcases a Republican facing investigations each month. A Democratic operative familiar with the planning of the campaign said that even if Democrats are facing similar allegations, what sets Republicans apart is the severity of their misconduct.
“The severity of [the Republican scandals] is just head and shoulders above anything [our candidates are] dealing with,” he said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has so far this year targeted Reps. David Rivera (R-Fla.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) (twice), among others. Those three in particular were cited by DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson as candidates under a level of investigation unparalleled by Democrats.
Severity can make a difference in how misconduct plays in the minds of voters, but sometimes all it takes for a scandal to stick are juicy details. Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, says that some issues are simply easier to fit into the 30-second sound bites that make up an attack ad or an evening news report.
“Complicated financial transactions like those involving Buchanan are less immediately comprehensible — voters pick up on these a little less than they do on more salacious scandals,” she said.
Buchanan is under congressional investigation into possible illegal donations to his campaigns for Congress in 2006 and 2008, as well as the possibility that he pressured a former business partner to sign an affidavit concerning those donations that he knew to be false.
The three-term lawmaker was recently cleared of wrongdoing by the Department of Justice, but the congressional investigations are ongoing — and though the details aren’t simple, his opponent, Democrat Keith Fitzgerald, launched a website outlining the investigations.
“The Democrats have used this smear campaign too many times for voters to take them seriously,” said Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts. “It’s a mirror replay of their negative campaign of 2008, when Vern won by a landslide.”
Other scandals remain potent, however, and might have room to grow — including those surrounding Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), whose in-laws were convicted of running an illegal gambling ring. Tierney denied any involvement or knowledge of the situation, but his wife spent 30 days in jail in 2010 — which Republican opponent Richard Tisei says stretches Tierney’s credibility.
“Most people for a long time were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he said he didn’t know about [the gambling ring] — it pushed his credibility,” Tisei said.
“Voters don’t expect perfection in their elected officials, but they do expect them to be honest and forthright, and on that account I think the congressman has failed. And that’s what I hear from people as I go around,” he added.
Tisei is the GOP’s best hope at picking up a district in the staunchly blue state, and the race has remained tight, indicating that despite strong Democratic support there, Tierney’s family’s legal troubles could be taking a toll on his campaign.
Rep. David Ciccilline (D-R.I.) was targeted by the NRCC on Wednesday as its next corrupt Democrat, a day after winning a tough primary fight during which his opponent for the nomination, Anthony Gemma, alleged that the candidate had engaged in voter fraud. The NRCC’s attacks instead focused on Ciccilline’s time as mayor of Providence, R.I., during which he left the city deeply in debt, of which his administration might have obscured the level and degree.
What makes some of these charges more potent than a typical ad attacking a candidate’s policy positions is that they are often corroborated by third-party reports, or seem more severe because of independent investigations.
That’s why this time around, the city budget issue could dog Ciccilline. Though it was raised during his 2010 run, the controversy has since come to a head due to an independent audit of Providence’s budget released in 2011 that offers corroboration that Ciccilline’s administration managed the city’s finances poorly.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), too, is facing an independent report that could hurt his reelection chances. Politico reported in August that the lawmaker might have inappropriately asked for campaign contributions after offering a constituent help through his office.
Sloan said that the report could be damning not because it found any clear evidence of wrongdoing — Bishop contests that he broke any rules — but because the race in New York’s 1st district was so close in 2010, and remains close. Bishop defeated Republican Randy Altschuler, whom he faces again this year, two years ago by fewer than 600 votes.
“We responded to the outrageous, over-the-top attack ad put on air by Randy Altschuler because people know Rep. Bishop, they know that he has conducted his entire adult life with integrity, and they know that outsourcer Randy Altschuler will stoop to any low to try to give his extreme Tea Party views … another voice in Congress,” said Bishop spokesman Robert Pierce.
And investigations into misconduct are, by definition, extraordinary, so they usually receive an extraordinary amount of media attention — meaning opposing candidates have to spend little time and money talking about the issues.
Jeffrey Garcia, campaign manager for Democratic candidate in Florida’s 25th district Joe Garcia, said the federal investigations into Rivera have been blanketing the front pages of local papers in recent weeks.
“We are in such an advantageous spot, where we don’t even have to carry the bad news,” Garcia said, adding that people in the district “are openly wondering and discussing their expectations for how much time he’s going to be spending incarcerated.”
Rivera’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.