Weeks before elections, scandals create headaches for both parties

Three weeks ahead of November’s elections, House leaders in both parties are battling unexpected headaches caused by ill-timed lawmaker scandals.

Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) are facing intense criticism for alleged misconduct that has captured national attention and forced party leaders to play late-campaign defense just when they’d hoped to take the fight to the other side.

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There’s no indication yet that the twin scandals will upend those campaigns from a practical standpoint, because both incumbents represent safe, partisan districts and appear well-positioned to keep their seats. 

But politically, the headline-churning interest in Jackson — who is under criminal investigation surrounding campaign finances — and DesJarlais — an anti-abortion conservative who urged a former mistress to terminate a pregnancy — has become an unwelcome distraction for both parties as they battle for the House gavel.

Both House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have stayed silent in the wake of the late-breaking scandals. Neither leader’s office would comment for this story. 

Boehner has tried to focus the GOP campaign on the economy rather than thorny social issues. Pelosi, in turn, has repeatedly attacked some Republican incumbents this year as “ethically challenged.” 

The DesJarlais and Jackson sagas have threatened to derail those messages amid the final sprint to the polls.

Jackson’s problems began when he left Capitol Hill in June to seek treatment for bipolar disorder.

His year went from bad to worse this week when the Chicago Sun-Times exposed a months-long federal investigation into whether the nine-term Democrat used campaign funds to adorn his home. 

Jackson is also the subject of a years-long House probe into allegations that a friend made campaign contributions to Rod Blagojevich (D), hoping the former Illinois governor would appoint the Chicago congressman to fill the Senate seat left open after Barack Obama was elected president.

Most recently, Jackson was the subject of a report by the website Gawker that he has been frequenting bars in Washington, D.C., even while claiming he’s too ill to return to work. 

Jackson’s GOP opponent in Illinois’s 2nd district, attorney Brian Woodworth, told the Sun-Times that he’s using the recently surfaced allegations against the veteran incumbent to make his case for the seat.

Woodworth’s campaign website reads like a greatest-hits list of every new report skewering Jackson.

“Jackson out at bars with two different women,” reads the latest headline.

Jackson’s office declined to comment this week, but the congressman told The Daily on Monday he was “not well” and was visiting doctors twice  a day at George Washington University. 

If Jackson were to withdraw from the election, all votes cast for him would be canceled. 

And because of the difficult process in replacing a candidate on a ballot so close to Election Day, Woodworth could prevail in that scenario. 

According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, if Jackson pulled out of the race, the Democratic Party would have to get a court order permitting it to amend the ballot and replace his name with that of another Democratic candidate. 

But because the ballots have already been printed — the state’s military ballots were sent out about three weeks ago — the likely course of action would be for the party not to replace him. 

The state has never replaced a candidate so late in the election cycle, according to a legal counsel for the state’s board.

While Republicans might be savoring the Jackson imbroglio, they have their own troubles to confront with DesJarlais in Tennessee. 

DesJarlais, a physician who rode the 2010 Tea Party wave to Washington, has been in damage-control mode since the Huffington Post last week reported the anti-abortion-rights conservative had an affair with a patient and urged her to get an abortion.

DesJarlais has pushed back hard. He noted that the affair happened more than a decade ago and argued it is irrelevant to his track record as a legislator. 

DesJarlais also claims that the woman was never actually pregnant, so the abortion was never necessary.

Still, Democratic challenger Eric Stewart is hoping DesJarlais’s bad week is a game-changer in the contest for Tennessee’s conservative 4th district.

“Absolutely, it’s changed the dynamic of this race,” Kevin Teets, Stewart’s campaign manager, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. 

“The 4th congressional district does lean conservative, but when the respect and trust [of voters] is betrayed, voters are going to take note of it.”

Teets said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which has not contributed financially to Stewart’s campaign, is awaiting new poll results to gauge whether DesJarlais is now vulnerable enough for the party to swoop in with late ad buys.

“Our phone has been ringing off the hook from the DCCC,” Teets said.

DesJarlais is also taking hits back home from conservative groups — spearheaded by Tennessee Conservative Union Chairman Lloyd Daugherty — that are readying a collective call for him to resign, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

One GOP strategist predicted Tuesday the recent scandals won’t alter the strategy of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is “very, very unlikely” to be a presence in either the DesJarlais or the Jackson race.

The latest allegations have not deterred either lawmaker from popping up in public.

The day the Huffington Post ran its story on DesJarlais, the freshman lawmaker attended a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Libya attacks and the State Department’s responsibility.

DesJarlais sat in the chair on the dais nearest to the Republican cloakroom and left about two-thirds of the way through without asking questions of any witnesses. He escaped questions himself from the press on his way out.