Why you should care
Because “drain the swamp” works both ways.
Welcome to The Wilderness, an OZY original series charting how Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more.
California Rep. Duncan Hunter is under FBI investigation for spending campaign funds on himself, including flying his family’s pet rabbit across the country. Investigators are looking into whether New York Rep. Chris Collins engaged in insider trading. North Carolina Rep. George Holding voted to block funding for fair housing investigations while a similar case involved his family’s bank. Utah Rep. Mia Love spent taxpayer funds on a flight to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and thousands in campaign funds at Disney World.
Democrats in Washington are hoping you see a pattern: Republicans abusing their positions for financial gain. They’re trying to turn Donald Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” on its head going into the 2018 elections. And while the left is fired up to oppose Trump, in order to pick up the 24 seats they need to retake the House, Democrats will have to compete against entrenched Republicans in parts of the country where the president did well.
It’s in questionable spending and personal finances that Democrats see the biggest opportunity.
Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says his research indicates that an ethics-driven message resonates across the political spectrum. “A candidate can run on a positive ethical reform message and a bold reform agenda as well as exposing a Republican as ethically challenged,” Law says. “It appeals to voters in all groups. It’s a nonpartisan message.”
Hunter has said the questionable charges were the result of a credit card mix-up, and he has reimbursed the campaign. Collins’ spokesman has said he followed all the appropriate ethical guidelines. Holding has said he was merely trying to stop government overreach in a broad array of industries. Love reimbursed taxpayers for the correspondents’ dinner flights, and her team has said fundraisers justified the Disney World expenses.
Democrats have ethical woes of their own. New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez is on trial for bribery. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been ensnared in a controversy over a former IT staffer who allegedly ran an equipment and data scam in the House. California Rep. Ami Bera’s father spent time in prison for campaign finance fraud related to his son’s campaigns. Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady’s campaign, according to federal prosecutors, paid a primary challenger to exit the race, and then the congressman tried to “influence” a witness during the investigation. (Brady has not yet been charged.) “The Democratic Party is rife with ethical issues, and it’s another case of them living in a glass house,” says Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
There’s also no real earth-shaking scandal on either side that can set a national agenda. When Democrats took back Congress from Republicans in the 2006 midterms, they capitalized on a variety of factors, from the failures of the Iraq War to President George W. Bush’s unpopularity. But they also ran against Washington corruption and launched a new congressional ethics watchdog organization once they took over. The pay-to-play scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had close ties to top Republicans, was bad enough. Then just weeks before the election, news broke about GOP Rep. Mark Foley’s explicit messages to underage House pages — and how House leaders knew about them for years.
Doug Heye, a longtime Republican aide, remembers the feeling of despair once the Foley news broke. He says while Republicans have plenty to be concerned about in 2018, the ethics storyline is hardly a replica of 2006. “That suggested Republicans writ large were not doing what they needed to do in running the House of Representatives in a way that voters can be proud of,” Heye says of the Foley scandal. “That became a systemic thing, because we had several things going on, with [Foley] being the most prominent. … I don’t see anything that a Republican member has done or been accused of doing that’s going to get anywhere near the coverage even of [former Democratic congressman] Anthony Weiner,” who was sentenced to prison in September for sexting an underage girl.
There have been other cases of GOP misconduct in competitive races. The Ethics Committee is probing California Rep. Devin Nunes’ handling of classified information in the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling. Montana’s Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter. But it’s in questionable spending and personal finances that Democrats see the biggest opportunity. The line of attack can dovetail with reports about Trump cabinet officials’ excessive use of private jets on the public dime. And Law says more congressional stories will drip out as opposition researchers dig into Republicans’ spending habits and stock trades.
The Democrats are targeting 80 Republican-held congressional seats — many in places where Trump is popular and GOP incumbents have cruised for some time. It will take national tailwinds and stumbles by the incumbents in order for Democrats’ long-shot reaches into red America to pay off. “People who felt very comfortable and haven’t felt a challenge, there’s a lot of ethical baggage to be sorted through there,” Law says. “And I think voters are going to be really attuned to that this cycle.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Doug Heye worked in 2006.