Democrats are taking a strikingly cautious approach to the controversy surrounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his speech to a white supremacist group in 2002.
The vast majority of Democrats are not calling for Scalise to resign, or for leadership to drop him. But they are tying Scalise to other Republicans and arguing the issue is emblematic of a party Democrats argue is at odds with minority groups on a range of policies.
Democrats don’t want to get too far in front of the story, particularly since it is unclear whether Scalise’s 2002 address to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization is an isolated incident.
It’s also possible that Democrats are quite happy to see Scalise continue to be a part of the GOP leadership, since it will allow them to return to the story about his address to a group founded by David Duke repeatedly between now and Election Day 2016, when Democrats hope a broader electorate will help them win the White House and take back House and Senate seats. Only Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.) has called for his resignation as majority whip.
“They probably believe that he’s more useful to them if he remains a leader in the Republican Party,” said Bob Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University and a former Democratic aide.
“If he resigns, problem solved, the Republicans have banished this embarrassing person from their midst, and the Democrats can’t use him as a symbol for intolerance.”
The statement from Pelosi’s office framed Scalise’s address as symptomatic of a larger GOP problem.
“Actions speak louder than whatever Steve Scalise said to that group in 2002,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.
“Just this year, House Republicans have refused to restore the Voting Rights Act or pass comprehensive immigration reform, and leading Republican members are now actively supporting in the federal courts efforts by another known extremist group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which is seeking to overturn the president’s immigration executive actions.”
Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and contributor at The Hill, said that it would be “pretty Machiavellian” for Democrats to want to keep Scalise in leadership for personal gain. He believes that Pelosi and other Democrats are holding back in fear of jumping the gun before all the facts come out.
“I think that the approach of Pelosi is the right one right now because I think that you really have to further examine what’s going on here,” he said.
“I think they just want to see what all the facts are on this and then make determinations down the road.”
Fenn added that he wouldn’t be jumping to Scalise’s defense for fear that more unsavory revelations could come out.
Scalise should be able to recover from “one strike,” he said, but Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) hand might be forced if more details from the event come out or further ties to white supremacist groups are uncovered.
Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond (La.) rushed to Scalise’s defense just hours after the story broke Monday.
“I don't think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body," Richmond, who is black, said in a statement to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“Steve and I have worked on issues that benefit poor people, black people, white people, Jewish people. I know his character,” Richmond added.
Danny Ford, a Louisiana lobbyist and former Executive Director for the state’s Democratic Party, said that Richmond’s comments helped to ward off Democrats looking to pile on. Ford added that he’s known both Scalise and Richmond for while, and Richmond wouldn’t have come to his colleague’s defense unless he meant it.
“That was a message of don’t be too quick to judge,” Ford said.
“It was a good signal that did help Scalise on that end with Democrats.”
Former Sen. Bennett Johnston and former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who are both Democrats, backed Scalise in statements to newspapers. Johnston told The Times-Picayune that he also didn’t know that the European-American Unity and Rights Organization was considered a hate group.
Ford said many Louisiana Democrats could also be coming to Scalise’s defense not just because of sympathy but also because of the realization that he’s a powerful voice for the state.
“For a small state such as ours, it’s crucial to have somebody in a leadership position regardless of what side of the aisle they are on,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody in the state is going to be calling for his head because they don’t want to lose that leadership position.”