Ind. Rep. Visclosky seat looks safe

Rep. Pete Visclosky is one of the few members of Congress who can announce his office has been subpoenaed but still feel good about his reelection chances.

The Indiana Democrat is dealing with the public fallout after announcing Friday that his congressional office, campaign and staff members were served with subpoenas in recent weeks.

But Visclosky is a 25-year incumbent appropriator with a solid record in a district that has stomached its fair share of corruption over the years.

And those close to the race say it’s going to take a lot more than subpoenas to bring him down.

“He’s more in trouble with investigators than with the electorate,” said Brian Howey, the publisher of the Howey Politics Indiana newsletter. “I don’t sense he’s facing any immediate political challenges in the Democratic primary or general election — and certainly not in the general election.”

Visclosky’s subpoenas are part of a federal investigation into whether a prominent defense lobbyist has funneled illegal campaign contributions to the Indiana lawmaker and several other powerful House Democrats.

His district went 62 percent for President Obama last cycle, but the two presidential races prior gave the Democratic candidates around 55 percent. As Gary and the East Chicago areas have shrunk in recent years, the district has added rural conservative areas and drifted away from Democrats.

National Republicans are talking to local leaders and hoping they can take advantage of Visclosky’s problems.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Paul Lindsay said “there is no shortage of reasons for Indiana voters to send Peter Visclosky into early retirement. He will face a strong challenge in 2010.”

But the incumbent has taken at least two-thirds of the vote every year but 1994 — a strong year for the GOP — and it’s hard for local observers to see Republicans seriously competing for the seat.

More likely, they say, is that the legal situation gets worse and a Democrat takes a shot at him in the primary.

Maurice Eisenstein, a political science professor at Purdue University Calumet, said even that is highly unlikely, given the power of the political machine in Lake County and the tolerance  for corruption there.

“This is probably the most corrupt area in the country,” Eisenstein said. “We put Chicago to shame.

“The only way you could lose is if you actually get indicted and convicted. We have people who served all the way through sentencing.”

Even if a Democrat did go after the incumbent, it’s not clear who would take up the mantle. Hammond Mayor and Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Tom McDermott Jr., who is seen as a potential Visclosky successor, has publicly backed the congressman as late as this weekend, and another top local official, Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez, is thought the have designs on the governor’s mansion in 2012.

Jay McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University, said Visclosky probably isn’t in any trouble right now. But he said the situation and national environment are such that the momentum to take Visclosky down could be built.

He noted that Visclosky wasn’t invited to a fundraiser held by Obama for other Democratic members of the delegation earlier this month — something Visclosky’s staff attributed to his safe district.

“There are signals going on here,” McCann said. “He’s still well-established. … But in this climate, this is the kind of story that could have some legs to it.”

 Visclosky is caught up in an investigation into campaign contributions made by associates of the now-defunct PMA Group and its former owner, Paul Magliocchetti, a longtime defense appropriations staffer.

 As chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee, Visclosky has used his seniority and influence to prop up an economically depressed district that was heavily dependent on a waning steel industry.

Visclosky, who is also a high-ranking member of the Appropriations Defense panel, steered $23 million worth of earmarks to clients of the former PMA Group. The PMA Group, its associates and its clients were Visclosky’s most generous campaign donors.

Visclosky received $1.3 million in campaign money from PMA and its clients since 1998, the most of any member of Congress except Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Appropriations Defense panel. Visclosky’s former chief of staff, Richard Kaelin, was one of PMA’s high-profile lobbyists.

PMA disbanded a few months after the FBI raided the Arlington, Va., office in November. The firm officially closed its doors at the end of March.

Visclosky has taken a more head-on approach to the PMA scandal than Murtha and Rep. Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report DC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report MORE (D-Va.), who have also had to answer questions about it. Visclosky announced the subpoenas in an editorial board interview in his district and has taken significant steps to distance himself from impropriety — real or perceived.

He returned about $18,000 in questionable donations he has received from possible “straw donors” recruited to boost his campaign fund. The Indiana Democrat has also refrained from requesting earmarks for any clients formerly connected with PMA and from accepting any campaign donations from companies that had hired PMA in the past, even if those companies were in his district.

Visclosky has openly called for an ethics investigation into the relationship between lawmakers and PMA and was one of the few Democrats to support Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE’s (R-Ariz.) resolution calling for an investigation.

“It is my intention to fully cooperate with the investigation consistent with my constitutional obligations to Congress and my duties and responsibilities to my constituents,” Visclosky said in a statement Friday. “I am confident that at the end of this process, no one will conclude that I have done anything wrong or harmed my constituents in any way.”

Visclosky has more than $900,000 in his campaign war chest — a serious deterrent to any challengers — and there is also the thought that he might vacate the seat in short order anyway.

His district will only become more unfriendly after the next round of redistricting, drawing in more rural areas and potentially aiding GOP efforts to target it.